Let me share with you a story of a woman named Miriam, a member of the prestigious priestly family of Bilgah who served in the second Holy Temple.

Antiochus, king of the Syrian-Greek empire, schemed to mold his realm into a homogeneous nation, and issued decrees whereby everyone had to conform to the dominant Greek culture, customs and creed. Disobedience was punished by death!

Antiochus commanded his generals to transform the Holy Temple, the spiritual center of the Jewish world, into a pagan temple. They erected an idol and began offering pigs to the pagan deity. They pillaged, ransacked and violated the Holy Temple, destroying and defiling its contents. They suppressed religious activity, sentiments and expressions of faith in the most barbaric manner. Women who had their children circumcised were put to death, their infants sadistically tied to their necks. Their families and anyone who had attended this ritual were executed as well. They suppressed religious activity, sentiments and expressions of faith in the most barbaric mannerPeople were rounded up and faced with a “choice” to eat pork and offer sacrifices to pagan idols, or suffer torture and painful deaths. One widely publicized incident involved R. Elazar, a ninety-year-old sage who was publicly murdered for refusing to eat non-kosher food. Young women were abused and forbidden to marry in purity.

The priestly families were especially traumatized by this assault. The atrocities and savage massacres the Jews endured, and the complete desecration of the Holy Temple, something incomprehensible to a member of the priestly family, left Miriam, a horrified witness to the savagery and abuse, feeling hopeless, bitter and angry.

Then, she did the unthinkable! Miriam abandoned Judaism, became Hellenized and married a high-ranking Greek officer. When the Greeks stormed the Holy Temple, she accompanied her husband, who was carrying a hog to place on the altar. Upon reaching the altar, she struck it with her sandal, crying out, “Wolf! Wolf!” (comparing the altar to a wolf that devours the daily offering of two sheep). “You consume the Jewish people’s wealth, but you don’t answer them in their time of need!”

When the Holy Temple was finally restored and the priestly families resumed their sacred service, the family of Bilgah was penalized for Miriam’s act of disrespect towards the altar:

Normally, each priestly family served in the Holy Temple for a week. At the end of the week, the incoming and outgoing families would divide the lechem hapanim (showbread) between themselves. Usually the incoming family would divide it in the north of the Temple courtyard, while the outgoing family would do so in the south. The Bilgah family always had to divide their share of the lechem hapanim on the southern side.

Additionally, each family had its own ring affixed to the floor, in which the head of the animal was enclosed to hold it down during slaughter. Each family also had their own alcove to store knives. The Bilgah family’s ring and alcove were permanently closed, forcing them to borrow these needed items from the other priestly families; because of this, they suffered great embarrassment.

There is so much to examine and discuss about this painful and intriguing story of events in the life of Miriam—its significance apparent from the very fact that it is recorded in the Talmud. Of the many lessons to be learned, I would like to focus on one that the Lubavitcher Rebbe elucidated and clarified.

Here, we are looking back at our history through the story of a young woman who obviously went through unspeakable horrors. In desperation she gave up, she felt she couldn’t fight; she was angry and then rebellious. In desperation she gave up, she felt she couldn’t fight; she was angry and then rebelliousThe Talmud in fact points out that her name is explicitly stated to underscore how, out of all the priestly families, she was the only one who abandoned Judaism in those terrible times. Considering the severity of that betrayal, it seems peculiar that her family was penalized for Miriam’s relatively minor offense of striking the holy altar!

We’re talking of a young woman who renounced her faith, intermarried with the enemy . . . a traitor who assisted her husband in offering a profane animal on the holy altar—defiling the very place her revered family served G‑d . . . Of all these grave sins, the focus is on her pounding the altar with her sandal?

The Rebbe gives a deeply moving and inspiring explanation: G‑d loves and cherishes every one of us, and our connection can never be severed. Look at Miriam: you would think she gave up everything, walked away from all that her people held dear, she’s now a Hellenist. But when she reaches the sacrificial altar, something hits a raw nerve, she sees her fellow Jews suffering, and her deep pain is exposed. In this moment of bitterness, what does she cry out? “Wolf, wolf! You consume the Jewish people’s wealth, but you don’t answer them in their time of need!”—in other words, “G‑d, how are You letting this happen?!” Her pain and response stress just how very connected she really was to G‑d and the Jews. She acknowledges G‑d and His relationship to the Jews, and can’t bear His silence.

G‑d never writes us off or gives up on us. Our bond is unbreakable and eternal. He understands our weaknesses, challenges and hardships, and eagerly anticipates when we will once again recognize our quintessential relationship and reach out to connect with Him. What we did over the years, last week, yesterday or even a few minutes ago, does not prejudice the prospects of the present. Each moment, and every decision we face going forward, presents its own precious opportunity. It is as if we are always standing at a fork in the road with the choice to turn in the right direction, and that choice rests with the first step forward.

Miriam may have viewed herself as no longer Jewish, not interested in G‑d, intermarried with the enemy, Hellenized, a pagan . . . But in reality, this was merely a superficial layer masking her true identity. The soul is bound to G‑d regardless of its outer spiritual appearance, even during the time of sin. At her core she was a Jewish woman, and every moment presented the potential for her to return and reconnect with G‑d through the Torah and mitzvot. Despite everything, G‑d was watching: what will she do now? Focusing on her conduct as she reached the altar underscores how each and every deed we do carries such incredible meaning and significance to G‑d. Our previous history is inconsequential and not an impediment to unveiling our cherished bond.

This story of Miriam underscores the significance of each of life’s opportunities. For example, it is so easy to dismiss the rest of a bad day, pushing off a project after a bad start, much like the “my diet starts tomorrow” syndrome, or deciding it’s too late to change. To us, our actions and decisions may seem trivial in the global scheme of things. However, to G‑d it is a most cherished bond that carries everlasting accomplishment. G‑d is zeroing in on the present, and anticipating our positive active response, one that actually has global ramifications. Maimonides writes that a person should realize that the fate of whole world is determined by his or her meritsMaimonides writes that a person should realize that the fate of whole world is determined by his or her merits. A single mitzvah that one person performs could be the very deed that tips the scale of merits in our favor and brings the final redemption to the entire world and all of creation.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that a person should consider that there never was, nor ever will be, in the history of the world, someone exactly like themselves. Each person has unique gifts and talents that the world depends on, and no one is replaceable. Every individual has a particular and vital niche in this world. To doubt one’s necessity to the world is to question the perfection of G‑d, the world’s creator.

Imagine a professional gourmet chef making his most famous dish. He has very specific ingredients that he uses in exact proportions. Surely, the chef would never toss in an extra dose of salt, thinking the small crystals are insignificant compared to the bulk of the food. An extra helping of salt would ruin the most savory dish. The oversalted dish would reflect badly on the chef, whose expertise relies on his mastery of understanding every ingredient and incorporating it with precision. Similarly, G‑d, in His perfection, created a world in which every creation is essential, with a specific role to perform that affects and completes the world.

With this we can understand why the Bilgah family was collectively held responsible for not reaching out to Miriam and giving her the appropriate support she needed during such horrendous times. Miriam, like every one of us, was not a spare, negligible soul. If G‑d created her, she is precious to Him and vital to all of creation. From the story of how Miriam’s family was penalized specifically for her conduct at the altar, her most minor offense, we can appreciate how crucial a role we play with each of our deeds. If, G‑d forbid, we veer off course, our mission in this world still awaits us; G‑d yearns for our return and anticipates our next mitzvah. We all have a responsibility to reach out and strengthen each other, since everyone’s deeds are so vital to all of creation and are most treasured and meaningful to G‑d.

We hope and pray that our next mitzvah is that final one that brings the immediate redemption and revelation of Moshiach!

This essay is dedicated to my dear mother, Rebbetzin Tzivia Miriam Gurary of blessed memory, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of her passing (12 Iyar 5771).

My mother was a person who lived in the present, focused on the task at hand. Her motto: diligence and perseverance. She excelled in delegating assignments based on capability, fostering a sense of empowerment and responsibility. She delighted in achievement based on genuine effort. My mother also showed us how to appreciate the beauty and grace hidden in what appears to be simple and ordinary.