Between the Lines—Hukkat

Between the Lines
Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu


תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף ט עמוד א
רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה אומר: שלשה פרנסים טובים עמדו לישראל, אלו הן: משה, ואהרן, ומרים. ושלש מתנות טובות ניתנו על ידם... באר - בזכות מרים... מתה מרים - נסתלק הבאר. שנאמר (במדבר כ') ותמת שם מרים, וכתיב בתריה ולא היה מים לעדה.


BT Taanit 9a

Rabbi Yossi son of Rabbi Judah says: three good leaders had arisen for Israel, namely Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and for their sake three good things were conferred upon Israel . . . The well [that followed the Israelites through their desert wanderings] was for the merit of Miriam. When Miriam died the well disappeared, as it is said, "And Miriam died there" (Num. 20:1) and immediately follows the verse, "The community was without water" (Num. 20:2).

The week we read of the passing of Miriam is the week that our community mourns—among others—Sylvia Ettenberg, dean emerita at JTS for more than half a century.

Like Miriam, Sylvia was the digger of wells for her Diaspora community. Sylvia had a crucial role in founding and leading virtually every JTS enterprise in the field of Jewish education: most famously Camp Ramah, but also the Rebecca and Israel Ivry Prozdor High School, the Melton Research Center for Jewish Education, the Department of Jewish Education, and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. She fostered an acute vision of what Jewish education could be, and of the great strength of a community shaped by a commitment to educating its most talented leaders.

Like Miriam's well, the well of Jewish educational institutions that Sylvia dug sustained her generation. If Miriam's wells were said to have dried up with her passing, however—though surely her legacy as a prophetess, as the sister who saved the infant Moses, as the one who led the celebratory singing after the crossing of the Sea, lived on—the wellsprings that Sylvia founded continue to be a source of sustenance. Camp Ramah, now in its 66th year, boasts more than 9,000 campers and 1,500 college and graduate students serving as counselors and teachers. Ivry Prozdor, the Melton Research Center, and The Davidson School thrive. The fountains of talent and leadership that Sylvia founded nourish the community she held so dear; indeed, the strength of her legacy is that it continues to live on, a very real blessing to the lives of people who never knew her, but who benefit from her prophetic work.

We are deeply blessed for the role models of two women who—each in her own way, in her own time—found ways to give their generations just what was needed to quench their thirst.