Parashat Shemot 5780

Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 17 January 2020

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, is mentioned only fourteen times in the Hebrew Bible – eleven times in the Torah, only once in the prophets and twice in the Book of Chronicles, and one reference there is probably not to the Miriam in this week’s parashah, but another unknown daughter of an even less known father.

We meet her as Moses’ sister in this week’s Torah portion, although she is not given a name here. Moses’ mother has placed her youngest child in a basket which she has put among the reeds in the River Nile, fearful that he will be discovered by Pharaoh who has issued a decree to kill all male Hebrew babies. Of his sister, we know that she stations herself at a distance from the baby to see what is going to happen to him. The midrash mentions her sensitivity and protectiveness towards her youngest sibling.

As soon as she notices that the daughter of Pharaoh has found the basket, she goes to the princess and offers a ‘Hebrew nurse to suckle the child’. Pharaoh’s daughter agrees and so the girl goes and fetches her mother. Her assertiveness and immediate actions complement that early tenderness she shows her brother.

The second time we meet Miriam she is given a name and to her name is added the title n’viah – ‘prophet’, a title that is not even given to Moses in the Book of Exodus. At the other side of the Sea of Reeds, relieved and full of joy, she takes up her timbrel or hand-drum, and with all the women following her dancing, she sings a shorter version of Moses’ Song at the Sea: ‘I will sing to the Eternal One for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea’.

It is an extraordinary glimpse into the scenes of triumph among the women and men, on the shores of the Sea of Reeds after the Israelites have safely crossed over and the Egyptians charioteers are no more. This is a woman with a voice, with qualities of leadership and greatness, strong and tender, courageous, full of verve and determined.

In the Book of Numbers she is mentioned five times in the same chapter. Here, for unknown reasons – perhaps jealousy, perhaps challenging the leadership and authority of Moses, she speaks out against Moses’ Cushite wife. We do not know whether this reference is to Zipporah, the Midianite wife he has taken while a shepherd in Midian, or a second wife from Cush (modern day Ethiopia). Even as she is punished by God, afflicted with a skin disease that turns her skin white, Moses prays for Miriam to be healed. She is brought back into the camp after seven days, but she remains a condemned woman and we hear only that she has died in the wilderness of Kadesh.

Deuteronomy remembers her only as a warning to Israel: ‘In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the Levitical priests instruct you… Remember what the Eternal One your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt’ (Deut. 24:9). The young girl on the banks of the Nile, the leader of women on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, is brought to shame in the wilderness.

Does she marry? Does she bear children? The Torah makes no mention of this. Rabbinic literature sees her as part of a triumvirate of leaders, bringing about redemption for Israel. And because the Book of Numbers, mentions that the well of water dried up after she died, the Rabbis attribute to her the miracle of a well that accompanied the Israelites as they journeyed through the desert. When she died, the well, Miriam’s well as it came to be known, ceased to exist.

In the midrash she is married off to Caleb, one of the twelve spies sent by Moses to spy out the land of Israel. She is, thus, brought into the tribe of Judah and gives birth to Hur. The Torah itself, however, leaves her proudly single and in this week’s parashah we learn of her essential qualities: responsible, curious, a young girl with initiative, courage and vision, in no one’s shadow.

In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter not only Miriam, but five other women who all play a redemptive role in saving the life of Moses and moving our story towards the Exodus from Egypt. They are Yocheved, the mother of Moses, the two midwives who defy Pharaoh’s decree to throw the male Israelite babies into the River Nile, Shifrah and Puah, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues Moses from the river and Moses’ Midianite wife, Zipporah.

When women assume a mantle of leadership and responsibility, it is not always easy. We challenge the status quo simply by our presence. We do not need to say or do anything. Male primacy and authority, in place for thousands of years have marginalised and silenced women and now as we emerge from the shadows and find our voices, many still find it difficult.

‘Has not God spoken through us as well?’ asks Miriam of Moses in Numbers. For this stepping over the line, she is punished. Not Aaron who joined with her in challenging authority, but Miriam alone. Chastised because of her own sense of self-esteem, for courage, truth and strength. After this, her role disappears and death follows swiftly. She is all but brutally trampled out of history.

In our attempts to wrestle with our egos, women in leadership must be careful not to lose that self-esteem and little sense of pride they have in themselves. There will be those who resent the authority and power we have, but we must continue to use it – and use it with sensitivity and humility.

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