Miriam striking a tambourine to celebrate the safe crossing of the Red Sea. Anselm Friedrich Feuerbach, 1862 Oil on canvas, 102 x 81 cm, Nationalgalerie, Berlin\
The name “Miriam” stems from the Hebrew word for “bitter” (mar), and Miriam has every right to feel that way.
“Miriam who?” you might ask?
My point exactly.
I’m talking about the biblical Israelite heroine and prophetess, without whom Moses never would have been born and the Israelites would not have escaped Egypt, nor would they have survived 40 years in the desert. Miriam played an integral role in the story of Exodus, yet she’s all but ignored during Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Exodus. It’s not surprising, in a way; while Miriam’s feats, as depicted in the Torah and the Talmud, make her a woman worth celebrating, she is slighted, punished, ignored and underestimated for much of her life.
In keeping with Passover’s emphasis on groupings of fours, I have compiled four questions (and answers) about Miriam’s life that reveal her courage, her spirit and her central role in the Exodus. You are encouraged to drink four glasses of Manischewitz as you read them. Or, better yet, ask a child (or four) to chant them aloud.
Did Miriam really save the Jewish people?
Yes, and at the age of 6, no less.
While one root of Miriam’s name is “bitter,” the other is the Hebrew word for “rebellion” (“meri”), and Miriam more than lived up to her name. According to the Talmud, Miriam was about 6 years old when Pharaoh commanded that all Israelite baby boys be killed at birth. In response to Pharaoh’s decree, Miriam’s father, Amram, divorced his wife, Yocheved, because he couldn’t bear the possibility of having a son who would be killed. Amram was the gadol hador — the most learned Jew of his generation in Egypt — and all of the Israelite men followed his lead and divorced their wives as well.
Miriam boldly rebuked her father for this action, saying: “Your act is worse than Pharaoh’s! He decreed that only male children not be permitted to live, but you decreed the same fate for both male and female children! … It is uncertain whether or not Pharaoh’s decree will be fulfilled. However, there is no doubt that your decree will indeed be fulfilled.” Amram’s decree that men divorce their wives would have led to the extinction of the Jewish people. Further, Miriam revealed a prophecy: that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem the Israelites from bondage and lead them to freedom.
And Amram, the most learned and respected Jew of his generation, accepted his young daughter’s advice and acted accordingly. He remarried Yocheved, and all the other Israelite men remarried their respective wives. A little while later, a son was born: Moses.
When Yocheved could conceal Moses no longer, it was Miriam who kept watch as Moses was set adrift on the Nile in his basket. And when Pharaoh’s daughter retrieved Moses from the water, it was Miriam who boldly and cleverly offered to arrange for a Hebrew wet nurse to take care of the infant. In this way, Miriam arranged for Moses to be brought back to his mother, Yocheved, who nursed and raised her son.
And so, at the young age of 6, Miriam saved the Jewish people.
Did Miriam really choose music over food?
Yes. Who needs leavened bread when you’ve got tambourines?
We are told that we eat matzah on Passover because the Israelites were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they didn’t even have time to let their bread rise before they departed. This might suggest that they were all caught unawares, but really, leavened bread was less of a priority than a full percussion band. Miriam knew the Exodus was coming — she had prophesied it — and she prepared for it not by telling the Israelites to stockpile bread, but rather by telling them to make tambourines and drums. Then, after the Israelites successfully crossed the Red Sea, she took out her tambourine and led the women in song and dance — a song you might recognize as the “Mi Chamocha.”
This is the first time Miriam is identified by name in the Torah. The story of Miriam’s rebellion against her father comes from the Talmud; up until this point in Exodus, we’ve heard only of an unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. Even here, however, Miriam’s relationship to Moses is not made explicit, and she is not connected to or identified as the unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. The Torah relates, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and then all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.”
Aaron’s sister? Why not Aaron and Moses’ sister? Why, especially now, in the moments after Moses’ greatest triumph as leader of the Jewish people? The Talmud contends that it is because Miriam’s major prophesy — that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem Israel — took place before Moses’ birth, when she was the sister of only Aaron.
Miriam’s song is notable not only because it provides the occasion for naming her, but also because the very activity she engaged in — singing and dancing in public — came to be banned by Orthodox Jews. Today, Orthodox women are not allowed to sing the “Mi Chamocha” — in synagogue or on the seashore or anywhere men might hear them, because Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from singing (and dancing, and wearing clothing that reveals their skin) in public because it might arouse men and distract them from their religious pursuits. It’s a distressingly contemporary issue: In January, an Israeli teenage girl was suspended from school because she appeared — and sang — on Israel’s version of the American TV show “The Voice.”
What did Miriam do to deserve being struck with leprosy?
She stood up to Moses, and was a woman.
In Deuteronomy, Miriam speaks out again, but this time she’s punished for it.
This time, the object of her criticism is not her father, but her brother Moses. Still, the subject is the same: wives and conjugal obligations.
Miriam learns that Moses has been neglecting his wife Zipporah: He has not had relations with her since he began communicating with God, and is behaving as though being a prophet means that the only person he’s beholden to is God. Miriam discusses the issue with Aaron, and they are in agreement: They reason that although they, too, are prophets, they haven’t distanced themselves from interpersonal relationships the way Moses has, and perhaps Moses ought to take a lesson from them.
The Torah relates that Miriam and Aaron questioned, “Is it but through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has He not spoken to us as well?” God reacts swiftly: He calls a meeting with the three siblings, during which he chastises Miriam and Aaron for thinking that they are as important or close to God as Moses is, and informs them that he favors Moses over them. And, as punishment, Miriam is struck with leprosy.
Only Miriam. Not Aaron. Why is Miriam the one punished, when both Aaron and Miriam issued the same criticism? Some rabbis reasoned that it’s because Miriam initiated the conversation. Others reason that it’s because Aaron was the high priest, and a physical affliction would prevent him from doing his job. Either way, Miriam gets the short end of the stick.
Interestingly, although Miriam advocates the importance of conjugal and familial responsibilities and speaks out on behalf of wives and mothers, in the Torah, she is neither a wife nor a mother herself — a striking act of nonconformity. In the Talmud, the rabbis “fix” that “problem.” The Talmud claims that Miriam was married to Caleb, and with him, she gave birth to Hur, who valiantly tried to prevent the building of the Golden Calf. Later generation descendants of Miriam include Bezalel, the chief artisan of the Tabernacle, and King David. But Caleb and Miriam’s names never appear together in the Torah. Multiple women are identified as Caleb’s wife — none of them named Miriam. In one passage, Caleb’s wife is identified as being named Ephrath. In another passage, his wife is named Azubah. The Talmud says that Ephrath and Azubah are other names for Miriam. And, in yet another passage, someone named Ashur is said to have had two wives, Helah and Naarah. The Talmud identifies Ashur as Caleb and says that Helah and Naarah are both Miriam.
Did anyone appreciate her gifts?
Yes, but mostly after she died. Figures.
During their 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were sustained by manna and water from a rock well that accompanied them on their travels. The Talmud identifies it as “Miriam’s Well.”
Its water is said to have the taste of milk, wine and honey, the same flavors attributed in the Torah, therefore connecting the well not just with physical nourishment but also with spiritual nourishment.
When Miriam dies in the Book of Numbers, at the start of the 40th year of wandering, the water from the well dries up, and the Israelites are left without water. It is only after her death that the Israelites fully understand that Miriam is to thank for keeping them alive — for providing them with the water necessary for their survival in the desert. They rally together and plead with Moses and Aaron to renew the well’s waters — otherwise they will die. Moses and Aaron pray to God for guidance, and God tells Moses to take his rod, gather the Israelites into an assembly and speak to the rock to request its waters. But Moses does not heed God’s orders: Instead of using words (as Miriam, the gifted linguist, did), Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock. Nothing happens. So what does Moses do? He again strikes the rock with his rod. This time, water comes gushing forth, and the Israelites are able to quench their thirst. But directly afterward, Moses and Aaron receive the ultimate punishment: God rebukes them for not heeding his orders (he said speak to the rock, not hit it with your stick!) and informs them that because they have not been sufficiently faithful, after all this wandering, they will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land after all.
In the late 1980s, a Boston Rosh Chodesh group inaugurated a new Passover seder ritual to honor Miriam: Miriam’s Cup, a cup of water, intended to symbolize the life-giving waters of Miriam’s Well.
Although I appreciate the sentiment, I have to ask: Really? A cup of water? Miriam deserves more than that. Elijah gets a glass of wine and a ceremonial opening of the door — and he hasn’t shown up to a seder yet!
In the context of an evening when we are each commanded to drink four glasses of wine, and we enjoy a large spread of foods, a single cup of water pales in comparative significance.
As opposed to setting aside and designating a cup of water in her honor, why not discuss how water is the primary component of absolutely everything on the seder table? Without water, there would be no food. There would be no people, no us. Similarly, without Miriam, there would be no Moses, and there would be no free Jews. There would be no us.
So it stands to reason that Miriam deserves a central role in the Passover seder. A role more central, and more vocal, than a cup of water.
To start with, how about a song?
The Universal Relevance of Passover
As I put the finishing touches on the second night of Passover Seder I will lead tonight, I wanted to share a few thoughts.
The first being that the message of Passover is universal and relevant, transcending time, place and culture. Yes, human trafficking and sex slavery are still very much with us, not just in the far reaches of Africa or South East Asia, but here too in the United States where 100,000 children are estimated to be involved in the sex trade. But, who among us has not felt metaphorically enslaved in some sense? Who among us has not had the feeling of wandering through the proverbial desert in search of the promised land? Who among us has not yearned for something in our lives or our society to change?
That leads me to the second point: Passover is a holiday about hope. Whether the modern day pharaohs that torment us are soul-crushing jobs or difficult semesters in school, financial anxieties or divorce, Passover teaches us that life can get better. Better yet, the story of a people who move from slavery to freedom reminds us that change in a given realm is achievable and that the past and present need not constitute the future. In other words, we have agency over our own lives and can work to deliver ourselves from our own Egypts. Just as the Exodus from Egypt did not happen overnight–in fact the story speaks of 40 long, arduous years in the desert–Passover reminds us that the changes we seek in our lives might be slow and gradual, even painful, but we should not despair.
The third point is that Passover is a political holiday. The Passover Haggadah mandates empathy, teaching, “In every generation, it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we had gone out of Egypt.” We are reminded that our ancestors were persecuted and oppressed, and regardless of how comfortable our lives may be today, our history obliges us to oppose injustices in our contemporary world. Of course, this is not just the Jewish story, but our broader American story. Nearly all of us in the United States came from elsewhere, whether we or our ancestors escaped religious persecution in England, pogroms in Russia, genocide in Rwanda or a lack of opportunity in El Salvador. Some of our ancestors came involuntarily, forced into a system of servitude defended by our same founding fathers who proclaimed, “All men are created equal.” Throughout American history, we have sometimes strayed from our mission and fallen short of our ideals. But, our American Revolution did not end in 1783–it is a perpetual work in progress in which the “arc of liberty” Dr. King spoke of bends closer and closer towards justice. It is therefore fitting that as we celebrate Passover this week, the Supreme Court is hearing two cases on gay marriage and comprehensive immigration reform is high on the agenda in Washington.
At the end of the Passover Seder, we typically say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” This year let us also hope that next year, individually and collectively, we will be in our own Jerusalems, our own promised lands, whatever they may be. Let us hope that our gay brothers will be delivered from the desert of inequality and our undocumented sisters will be freed from throes of limbo and given a path to citizenship.