“In the Merit of Miriam”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we learn of the oppression of the Israelites at the hands of the Egyptians, as well as the birth of Moses, and his emergence as a leader of Israel. In this parasha we are also introduced, albeit anonymously, to Moses’ family.

In Exodus 2:1 we are told: “Va’yay’lech ish mee’bayt Lay’vee, va’yee’kach et bat Lay’vee,” a man went from the house of Levi and took the daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and gave birth to a son. She saw that the child was good, and hid him for three months. When she could no longer hide the child, she took a wicker basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child in the basket, and placed the basket with the child among the reeds at the bank of the river. The child’s sister (whose name we are not told) stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

The rest of the story is well known. Pharaoh’s daughter goes to bathe down by the river, finds the child, recognizes that it is a Jewish child, takes pity on him, and accepts his sister’s (Miriam) offer to find a Jewish nurse for the boy. Our commentators say that the anonymity in this portion comes to underscore that our leader and savior, Moses, came from a normal, mortal, flesh and blood father and mother. There is nothing supernatural about Moses, except that he goes on to become a person of great spirituality and stature.

Moses’s sister, Miriam, is also a special person. She is one of the seven female prophets in the Bible, and plays a key role in the story of the Exodus. It is Miriam who leads the women in song after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:21). In deference to Miriam’s kindness when she waited for the baby Moses, the nation waits seven days for Miriam when she is stricken with the disease tzoraat for speaking against her brother Moses (Numbers 12:15). After Miriam’s death, the people thirst for water (Numbers 20:1) alluding to the miraculous Midrashic “Well of Miriam” that followed the Israelites in the wilderness in Miriam’s merit.

The rabbis of the Midrash, however, attribute to Miriam many additional accomplishments that are not found in the text. Building apparently on the young girl’s heroism that saved her brother’s life, they conclude that Miriam must have accomplished much more. The Midrash’s amplification of Miriam’s role is rather extensive.

According to the Midrash, Amram, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, was born in Egypt several years after Jacob arrived in Egypt amidst the 70 souls from Canaan. Amram was a prophet as well as the leader of his generation. In fact, the rabbis say that Amram was among the seven truly righteous people who are believed responsible for bringing G-d’s divine presence down from heaven to dwell on earth.

Amram married his aunt, Yocheved, who was significantly older than he. According to the Midrash, Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, was born as the 70 people who accompanied Jacob to Egypt passed through the gates of the land. Tradition maintains that since since the Torah had not yet been given, and that Amram’s father and Yocheved were born of different mothers, Amram and Yocheved were allowed to marry.

Although Yocheved was well-on in years, and Amram was himself no youngster, a daughter was born to them, who they named Miriam. Three years later, a son, named Aaron, was born. When Yocheved reached the ripe old age of 129, it was assumed that her childbearing days were over, but when little Miriam was only 5 ½ years old, the spirit of G-d rested on her. She prophesied that a son would be born to her mother and father who would lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Soon after, Yocheved became pregnant with Moses.

That very night, Pharaoh dreamt of a sheep giving birth to a little lamb. The little lamb was placed on one side of a scale that hung from heaven, and all the gold and silver of Egypt was placed on the other side of the scale. The lamb outweighed all the wealth! Then all the weapons of Egypt and more gold and silver were added, and still the little lamb outweighed everything.

The next morning, Pharaoh invited all his magicians and sorcerers to interpret his dream. They told him that the little lamb represented a nation that dwelt in Egypt, and that the lamb would eventually destroy Egypt and capture all the surrounding lands. When Pharaoh asked if the child had already been born, he was told that the child’s mother had conceived that very night.

“How will he die?” asked Pharaoh. “His death will be with water,” he was told (an allusion to Moses hitting the rock to bring forth water, Numbers 20:7-13). “What recourse do I have?” cried Pharaoh. The magicians and sorcerers advised Pharaoh to appoint officers to record every woman who was pregnant at that time, so that nine months from that date those newborn children could be thrown into the river. It was at that point that Pharaoh declared that every male child that is born shall be thrown into the river (Exodus 1:22).

The officers fulfilled their duty faithfully, keeping careful account of all the pregnant women. After nine months, the Egyptian women came with their own babies to the homes of the Hebrew people. In response to the cries of the Egyptian babies, the Jewish babies began to cry as well, revealing their location, and were immediately thrown into the river.

When Amram, who at that point had been appointed the head of the Jewish people (the Sanhedrin), gained knowledge of Pharaoh’s nefarious plans, he immediately separated from his wife. When his action became known, all the men of Israel followed suit and divorced their wives. Yocheved was then three months pregnant, but it was not yet apparent.

Amram and Yocheved dwelt apart, as did many men and women of Israel. One day Miriam arrived from her mother’s house to visit her father, and said to Amram, “Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s! Pharaoh only issued a decree that the males should die, while your decree applies to both males and females. Pharaoh decreed that the children’s lives be terminated only in this world, and you have decreed that they not live both in this world and the world to come. Pharaoh is wicked, and the likelihood is that his decrees will not be fulfilled. You are righteous, and your decree will certainly be fulfilled!”

When Amram heard this, he brought Miriam to the Sanhedrin, stood her before the tribunal, and reported her words to them. They said to Amram: You issued the prohibition against husbands and wives remaining together, it is your responsibility to rescind that prohibition.

It was at that point that we read in our parasha that a man from the house of Levi went and took the daughter of Levi. Amram listened to Miriam’s words of rebuke and reunited with his wife.

The debt of gratitude that we owe Miriam is very great. After all, if it weren’t for Miriam, there would be no Moses. If it weren’t for Miriam, there would be no Jewish marriages in Egypt. If it weren’t for Miriam, there would be no Hebrew nursemaid for Moses. If it weren’t for Miriam, there would be no redemption. If it weren’t for Miriam there would be no song for the women to sing at the crossing of the Red Sea. If it weren’t for Miriam, there would be no water for the people to drink in the wilderness.

Perhaps what is most fascinating about this elaborate Midrash is the fact that these Midrashim were all written by rabbis thousands of years ago, long before “women’s liberation” became popular. Yet they portray the women of Israel, specifically Miriam and Yocheved, as great heroines, without whom there would be no redemption. “Biz’chut nah’shim tzid’kah’nee’ot …nig’ah’loo Yisrael mee’Mitzrayim” (Sotah 11a). In the merit of the righteous women, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt. That is quite an amazing statement for some ancient rabbis to pronounce!

May you be blessed.