This month has three names. The first is Chodesh haRishon, the first month, so called to mark the time we became a people. The Jewish New Year, Rosh haShanah, in Tishrei, marks the creation of the world. According to the Jewish way of reckoning time, each month represents a distinct beginning; hence Chodesh haRishon is Nisan's historical appellation. The month is also called Chodesh heAviv, the month of spring. Finally, the month is named Nisan, which may be related to nitzan, bud. As King Solomon wrote in the Song of Songs: ha'nitzanim nir'u ba'aretz (The buds appear in the land)/ Eit hazamir higi'a.1
Bring: Musical instruments: bells, drums, flutes, whistles, tambourines, sticks, scrapers, rattles, kitchen pots; large bowl of water; writing paper; empty coffee can; and matches.
Setting: By the sea or a body of fresh water to remind us that the womb is like a sea through which each of us has passed at the moment of birth. Water also reminds us of the Sea of Reeds through which we, the Jewish people, have emerged to become a nation. If it is not possible or convenient to meet at a watering place, decorate the space with symbols of Egypt and slavery; liberation, spring, and the sea. Create a warm environment for Miriam and her community of Jewish women.
Themes for Nisan
Keeper of Nisan (group facilitator):
On Rosh Chodesh Nisan we honor Miriam haNevia, Miriam the Prophetess, who died on this day.2 We call this Ilui Miriam, the exaltation of Miriam.
The focus of this Rosh Chodesh will be our ancestor, Miriam. As a prophetess who could see deeply into the present to understand the future, she also cared for her family, showing heroism. She was not only a poet, a leader of song and dance, but also a midwife.
We honor Miriam with music, singing, and dancing. We honor her with stories; we honor her with poetry.
Keeper of Nisan:
As we gather on this Rosh Chodesh, we imagine ourselves as descendants of that community of women who accompanied Miriam with song and dance to celebrate the safe crossing of the Sea of Reeds – the successful flight from Egyptian slavery. The Zohar teaches that we were all present at Mt. Sinai. The mystics and those with deep imagination can uniquely recollect this.3
On the 14th of Nisan, we celebrate the festival of Pesach (Passover), the birth of the Jewish people. The grass of Nisan is pulsing with the same green that drove our ancestors to procreate.
Sign of the Month:
Taleh, the ram, is the male sheep thrusting into spring. Nisan embodies the fiery urge to create and to procreate, to begin.
Two brothers and a sister assisted at the birth of the Jewish people. Moses is the ram who knows how to make his way through the unmarked desert. The others follow him. Aaron is the priest who tries to coax the sacred from a calf-shaped golden mound, reassuring those who have lost hope. Miriam leads the song and dance. She teaches the sounds which the sea has taught her, in a chorus of voices: the exultant tenor of the wind, the chiming bell of the sky, the bellowing bass of the mountains, the mournful croak of the valleys, the newfound voice of the people.
And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dances. And Miriam answered them, "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea."
Now, one woman tells a brief version of the Exodus story or else reads the story from the Bible.
Let's join hands in a circle for a few moments. We will feel the presence of Miriam and her women. Let's each think of our own kavannah, our goal for this Rosh Chodesh Nisan.
(Silence for several minutes as the women join hands, sitting in a circle with eyes closed, focusing inward. Some of the women share their kavvanot. An example follows:)
During this month our ancestors had to leave possessions behind and move on to a new way of life. When we leave a place or when we end a portion of our lives and move to something new, how many times do we leave it the way we'd really like to? How many times do we have a closing that really feels more like a renewal and not an ending, a forgetting or an escape? We need to find ways to focus on ourselves in the midst of change and movement. There is always a center within us.
Keeper of Nisan:
I shall ask Four Questions on this Rosh Chodesh Nisan in the tradition of the Four Questions of the Pesach Haggadah.
How can we leave Mitzrayim (Egypt) behind us?
In what ways is the festival of Pesach a birth?
Why is Miriam's Song unfinished?
Why do we say, "By the merit of righteous women we came out of Egypt"? 4
Purification Ritual/Burning Mitzrayim
(introduced by Esther Linder, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, Philadelphia 1979)
I propose a purification ritual that is an answer to "How can we leave Mitzrayim behind?" The hasidim believe that everyone can be said to be in an individual Mitzrayim from which it is crucial to be extricated. This ritual will help us remove the barriers that block celebrating Pesach and experience the life-giving spirit of Miriam.
Let's begin by believing we're in Egypt, Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim means, "from the straits, the narrows." This is the place where we were slaves, constricted, and confined.
Think of what you would like to leave behind this month as you emerge from slave to free person, from seed to blossoming flower, from Winter to Spring.
Take a piece of paper and a pencil (now placed in the middle of the circle). Make a list of qualities, attitudes, fears, and anxieties that are constraining you. The act of writing your Mitzrayim is not an act of liberation in itself. This is merely one step in the process. By writing and then burning your Mitzrayim, you will be identifying what deters you. Then you need to try to obliterate these negative aspects of your life. (Each woman takes a piece of paper and pencil and writes for about ten minutes).
(She tears her page of Mitzrayim into tiny pieces, dropping them into the can, then lights a match and also drops it in. The others follow suit, some with nervous laughter, some with grins and some with relieved sighs. When the small fire is extinguished, the woman who has led the ritual takes the coffee can and turns it upside down, scattering the Mitzrayim to the winds. If the gathering is indoors, the ashes should obviously be deposited out of a window or porch.)
We leave our Mitzrayim by becoming aware of what constricts us. We also leave behind the "narrow straits" by doing what brings us joy – singing and dancing and telling stories.
One woman hums a niggun (wordless melody), others follow. Instruments are given out. Soon a rhythm is established, punctuated by drums and tambourines. The music grows louder and softer, faster and slower like the ever-changing sea embracing the shore and receding from it.
Gradually the music fades and conscious, voiced rhythmic breathing follows, imitating the sound of the sea. Then silence.
Let's chant together a page from the Haggadah of the Thirteen Sisters, the beginning of an answer to "How is the festival of Pesach like a birth?"
All chant in unison:
Our liberation comes from inside
From Tehom the motherdeep, the birthplace inside each of us
From twisted stomachs
From holding it in and making it tight:
Tight womb, tight vagina, tight mouth pressed in upon itself.
Our liberation has been a slow birth over centuries.
Avadim hayinu, we have been slaves
To words, to prayers, to rituals that do not come from inside,
From Mitzrayim, from the desperate push to be whole women,
Whole human beings.
Our liberation will need the old ways of listening to our bodies
To hear the rhythms of the universe reflected therein:
The ocean waves coming close and going away,
The moon herself filling up and emptying out,
The breath gaining and sighing,
The womb blood surging and gushing out,
The womb herself lying fallow for a time and fertile for a time.
Can you feel how it will be to hear through this inner ear again?
To stop being afraid to be women
Who give birth in the fields,
Who suckle and nurture ideas as we nurture and suckle children,
Who feed ourselves and others from kitchens that are cornucopias,
Who pray like Hannah and Sarah and Even and our great-grandmothers
And grandmothers who drew from the Well and always found water,
Who pass on wisdom as our mothers passed to us in their milk
The pain-and-joy puzzle in being women.
Our liberation will not be our liberation until we share it,
Teach it, feed it, drink it, sign it with the others.
A diamond cannot show all its facets until another diamond grinds it.
This is certain: the soft-strong humming waters of mikveh
In which we bathe each month
Ache to be born in all of humankind.
(poem by Penina Adelman)
Pesach teaches us about birth, both physical and spiritual. The stories of Miriam abound with themes of creativity, birth, and redemption: the legend of Miriam's Well weaves these together.
The Legend of Miriam's Well
At twilight on the second day of Creation, God embedded a precious liquid jewel in the earth, a miraculous well of pure, sparkling water. From one generation to the next, the well belonged to those who knew how to draw up its water. Filled with mayim chayyim, living waters, the well was a reminder to all who drank or drew from it, that the Torah, the way of the Jewish people, is also a well from which all may drink and be restored.5
Possession of the well passed from Abraham, the first patriarch,6 to his concubine, Hagar,7 and then to his son, Isaac.8 Each of the patriarchs and matriarchs in turn discovered anew this source of living water in the desert.9
During their Egyptian slavery, the Children of Israel lost access to the well itself. Worse, they lost the memory that such waters had ever existed.
Only by the merit of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, did the well reappear to them during their desert wanderings. But why was the well revealed in the name of Miriam?
The power of her voice and her intimate understanding of water were the reasons she was thought worthy to be the keeper of the well.
She convinced her father, Amram, to restore conjugal relations with her mother, Yocheved, because in a dream she learned that a liberator of Israel would be conceived from their union.10 Later she sang to the Nile River, persuading it to protect her baby brother, Moses. She had placed him in the reeds close to the banks to save him from Pharaoh's evil decree that all Jewish baby boys should be destroyed at birth.
As a midwife in Egypt, she had also used her voice in her work. Known by the name Puah, which means "breath," she used to puff gentle sounds and songs into the ears of a woman about to give birth. With a voice calming as the rippling of water, Miriam coaxed reluctant newborns out of the womb and into the world.11
After the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, Miriam and the women took up instruments as they danced and sang the song of redemption.12 Once again, Miriam's reverence for water inspired her to lead a joyful song of salvation. Thus was Miriam's unique connection with the sources of redemption begun both in Egypt and the desert exile of her people.13 It was believed then that God gave the well in Miriam's name, since Moses could barely speak, let alone sing, while the voice of Aaron, the priest, was so loud it frightened both children and animals.
Later, when Miriam passed from the earth, the well ran dry and disappeared just as in Egypt. In despair, the people complained loudly to their leader, Moses, that they would die of thirst. But Moses was unable to sing the waters of Creation up from the depths as his sister had. It was then that God told Moses and the people of Israel how to address the well and urge it to bring up the waters of life.
"Then Israel sang this song,
Spring up, O well, sing to it."14
Slowly they were answered with the well's nurturing waters. Accompanying them to Mt. Sinai where they received the Torah, Miriam's Well remained with them. Its waters caused herbs to grow which the women used as perfume. Soft billowy grass sprouted from its waters which some used to make a bed for the night. But later, when they entered the Promised Land, Miriam's Well disappeared. It was thought that it had vanished because they were in their homeland once again and it was natural to drink from other wells. But some missed Miriam's Well and never stopped their search for it. They were the students of Torah who sought its sustenance in the wisdom of the sacred text.
Centuries later, in the village of Safed in the north of Israel lived the kabbalists – Jewish sages studying the mystical meanings in the Torah. They rediscovered Miriam's Well, claiming that it was found not far from them near the Sea of Galilee. One drink from its pure waters was said to alert the heart, mind, and soul and make the meanings of the Torah become more clear.
It was then that water from that well was taken in pouches to wherever Jews had settled. In each generation, it was believed, there lived wise men and women who would sprinkle these waters on the ground and cause new wells to spring forth. Centuries later, the hasidim of Eastern Europe attested to its ability to reappear, wherever Jews sang to it.15
In our own time it is said that Miriam's Well is near those who cast their buckets into any well at the end of the Sabbath as all wells are filled with those refreshing waters at that time.16 In this way the well now belongs to us Jewish women as we draw up from the depths of tradition the essentials of our sustenance.
In the manner of Miriam's Well, after crossing the Sea of Reeds, we have taken up our instruments and begun to sing our songs, to utter the words and tell the stories arising from our longings for the waters of her well. Our spiritual thirst has caused us to search our heritage and the Torah for ways to drink the clear waters of creation.
The story sparks discussion. Then the women tell other tales they recall: of Miriam as redeemer, prophetess, midwife, singer, dancer, waterbearer. They tell stories and anecdotes heard from mothers and grandmothers and fathers and grandfathers about birth; of their own experiences in birthing their children or helping friends and relatives during delivery. They speak of birth in other contexts: spiritual, intellectual, emotional.
We have heard how the story of Pesach celebrates Miriam's powerful voice, a voice which inspires the community of Jewish women to sing and to speak. The Midrash claims that the song of Miriam is unfinished in order to challenge each generation to add to it. How shall we sing the song of Miriam now?
"Miriam's Well" is our source of song, of dance, of poetry. "The Well" contains the collective experience of Jewish women, of Judaism and of other peoples. The way Jewish women expressed their triumph at the Sea of Reeds is embodied in Miriam. She is the voice singing in the wilderness above the rest, distinct from her brothers, Moses and Aaron. That is why we say, "By the merit of righteous women we came out of Egypt." "Miriam" is the collective name given to those Israelite women, our ancestors.
Let's make a mikveh (ritual bath) of song, a well flowing with music in honor of Miriam. Our voices will be the water in which our souls can bathe.
Seven women take turns speaking each of the following:
Water, wells, the Sea of Reeds, the sea of the womb and now a mikveh of song.
Women are like water. We flow together naturally like rivers into the sea.
We flow from inside to outside to each other.
We flow with blood.
We flow with milk.
We flow with words.
We flow with song.
We form two lines facing each other as we sit, and begin humming softly, closing our eyes, imagining that water is pouring through us in the form of sound.
Both lines raise their arms to form a bridge, singing and humming all the while. Eventually one person leaves the bridge to be a "fetus." The "fetus" makes its way slowly through this birth canal of sound. The voices and hands caress this unborn person like midwives, urging her to be born out of Egypt, out of the Sea of Reeds onto dry land. All sound accompanying the mikveh is non-verbal.
At the end of the bridge through the "Sea," there is a large bowl of water. The "newborn" sprinkles some water on her face and then the next person embarks on the birth journey, until all have had their turns.
The women's song swells and diminishes, like the waves of the ocean, like the moon in the night sky, like the course of the year and the course of their lives.
After all have "emerged" from the "Sea," we form a circle, dancing and singing. Some use bells, drums, sticks, rattles to accompany the others. Traditionally, the entire Song of Songs is sung during Pesach. We start practicing on Rosh Chodesh Nisan.
We also sing songs of joy and triumph: Miriam's song 17 ; Hava nashira Shir Hallelujah (let's sing a song of hallelujah! Traditional); Shiru L'Adoshem (Sing to God! Hasidic).
The songs and dances gradually wind down and all partake of the food and drink.
- Learn About Miriam: Study Miriam together, especially noting the wealth of new material which has recently appeared.
- Honor Miriam: Perform the ritual of Kos Miriam (The Cup of Miriam) together.
- Study and Go Out: Study sources on mikveh together; then go to the mikveh together.
Adelman, Penina. Miriam's Well: Rituals for Jewish Women Around the Year (Biblio Press, 1986), p. 66-72. Printed with permission.