Pesach – Miriam’s downplayed story

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The seventh day of Pesach is traditionally considered to be the anniversary of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the miraculous event that enabled the newly liberated Israelite slaves to escape the pursuing Egyptian army headed by Pharaoh himself. After witnessing the rescue of his people, Moses led the Israelites in singing a song of praise to G-d for delivering them from the enemy. The Torah then records that Miriam led the women in song and dance with musical accompaniment singing the song composed by her brother.

What is noteworthy is that the Torah refers to Miriam as haNevi’ah, ‘the prophetess’. While most of us know about the many biblical prophets few of us are aware that three of them were women. In addition to Miriam, Deborah and Huldah were also prophetesses. The Talmud (Megillah 14a) adds four other biblical women to the roll call of prophetesses, namely Sarah, Hannah, Abigail and Esther. While these women are not called prophetesses in the Bible, the Gemara offers textual support for its claim that they were.

The Talmud (Sotah 12b-13a) quotes Rav’s teaching that Miriam prophesied that her mother, Yocheved, would give birth to a son who would deliver Israel from slavery. When Moses was born the house was filled with light and her father, Amram, kissed Miriam on the head and congratulated her on the fulfilment of her prophesy.

When, however, Yocheved had to hide Moses in the river, Miriam’s father smacked her on her head and reproached her saying, “heichan nevu’atecha!” (“Where is your prophecy!”). That, according to Rav, is why Miriam watched over the basket in which her infant brother lay to see what would become of him — what would be the fate of her prophecy. Thus she was on hand to offer Pharaoh’s daughter a Hebrew wet- nurse when the princess discovered and rescued Moses from the river. By arranging that Moses’ biological mother raised him during his formative years before he was handed over to Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam ensured that her baby brother would identify with the Israelites’ plight and be the saviour she prophesied he would be.

According to another midrash (Sotah 12a, Pesikta Rabbati 43) Miriam’s parents divorced after Pharaoh had issued a decree ordering all male Israelite children to be drowned in the Nile. Miriam persuaded her father to remarry his wife, a decision that resulted in the birth of the liberator of Israel.

Based on Numbers 20, which relates the death of Miriam in the wilderness and the subsequent lack of drinking water, a further midrash states that a wandering water- bearing rock followed the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness, providing them with a constant supply of water. This well, created by G-d at twilight on the eve of the very first Shabbat, existed because of the righteousness and faithfulness of Miriam and therefore dried up when Miriam died.

Miriam was an integral part of the leadership team, joining her two brothers, Aaron and Moses, in the challenging task of leading the newly liberated nation of Israel in a journey full of uncertainty and hardship. Moses was the ultimate prophet, law-giver and teacher, a man who “spoke to G-d face to face”, a leader who ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Utterances. Aaron was the Kohen HaGadol, the High Priest who facilitated the intimate relationship between Israel and G-d by overseeing the sacrificial ritual. Both needed to be aloof in order to fulfil their leadership roles. Miriam, however, was a leader of the people from the midst of the people. The well of water that followed the Israelites was indicative of Miriam’s vitality and compassion for her people, an empathy and love that was reciprocated by the Israelites.

As a leader from amongst the people, Miriam was not afraid to challenge Moses when necessary. Numbers 12 records that Miriam (and Aaron) spoke against Moses because of his Cushite wife. The rabbis (Tanchuma Tzav) explain that Miriam did not disapprove of Moses’ wife, but rather she castigated Moses for not fulfilling his obligation to be intimate with his wife. She witnessed Zipporah’s unhappiness and loneliness and, being a woman, she empathised and reminded her brother that his responsibilities as a political and judicial leader did not negate his obligations as a husband.

Many Progressive Jewish households add the ritual of Miriam’s well to the Pesach seder. As each participant drinks a glass of water in addition to the traditional four cups of wine, we recall Miriam’s well that provided physical nourishment to our ancestors, just as Miriam herself was a source of spiritual and emotional sustenance to her people. By toasting Miriam with a glass of water towards the end of the seder, liberal Jews attest to the significant role she and the other six prophetesses played in the biblical narrative of Israel. Chag Kasher v’ Sameach.

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