Miriam the prophetess

Insights into People in the Torah Series. The Torah Portion of “ Beshalach” Exodus 13:17–17:16

Moshe Kempinski,

Judaism water flowing in Nachal Og in northern Israel
water flowing in Nachal Og in northern Israel
צילום: PR

After the Exodus from Egypt , the children of Israel find themselves being  chased  by the Egyptians. They are confronted by a raging Red Sea. They gather courage and jump in. It is then that Hashem splits the sea in a dramatic flourish of His redemption;

On that day Hashem saved Israel from the hand  of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egypt dying on the seashore. And Israel saw the great hand, which Hashem had used upon the Egyptians, and the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant.      ( Exodus 14:30-31)           

In a spontaneous expression of gratitude the people of Israel break into song;

Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song to Hashem, and they spoke, saying, I will sing to Hashem, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.( 15:1)etc.

 When the men finish their song of praise we read the following;

“Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered ( VaTaan)  out to them, Sing to Hashem, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea “( ibid :20-21)

Three questions need to be examined.

Why Miriam was called Miriam?

What does her name signify as all names are a whispers of destiny, spiritual strengths and weaknesses ?

Furthermore why is she called “Miriam, the prophetess” ?

Thirdly the text describing the beginning of their singing literally says that she” answered them..VaTa-An Miriam", rather than  simply “called out” to the men.

What was the question that she was answering?

The name Miriam is made up of two words Mar which translates as Bitterness as the midrash teaches "Why was her name Miriam? Because of the bitterness (mar). (Seder Olam Rabba 3)”. The second part of her name   Yam which translates as sea or waters.

That was the essential quality that made Miriam so impactful on the history of the people of Israel. The Talmud (Massechet Taanit) teaches that there were three miraculous gifts bestowed upon the Israelites in the wilderness. The first was the well of water which accompanied the people on their voyage, which came on account of Miriam.The second gift was the Clouds of Glory which came on account of Aaron, and the third was the Manna which came on account of Moshe.

Waters soothe and give life . Waters refresh and rejuvenate. Miriam was an unusual mixture of empathy and sensitivity. She felt the pain the fears and the Bitterness of those around her , her people and her immediate family. She recognized and lived the Bitterness fully. Yet she had a clear intuitive faith in the promises of redemption hope and rebirth.

The Midrash in tractate Sotah describes subtext. When Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys would be thrown into the Nile ,Amram and Yocheved the parents of Moshe decide to separate so as not to endanger any more children. When they did so, they were followed by most of the other Israelite couples. Desperation and hopelessness gripped the people and thrust them into despondency.

According to this midrash, Miriam approached her father and said, “your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh decreed against the boys, you decreed against both boys and girls. Pharaoh decreed only in this world, you decreed in this world and the world to come. Pharaoh’s decree may be overturned, your decree (not having children at all) cannot be overturned.” Miriam convinced her father to remarry her mother, and so Moshe and subsequently many other children in many other families were born.

She continued to be the source of that refreshing waters throughout the sojourn in the wilderness.

Regarding her prophetic ability, Miriam is listed among the seven Jewish prophetesses. This sense of "knowing" gave her the  conviction stand before her parents and give them hope again. It was her prophetic awareness ,that this younger brother would lead the people of Israel into redemption, that gave her the courage to stand by the bushes to watch over her little brother "And his sister stood from a distance"  to know "what would happen to him. (Exodus 2:4). The words “to stand” denotes a surety of faith that cones with the "knowing" of prophetic insight. As the Midrash teaches “And she stood  with Divine inspiration resting upon her. (Midrash  Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael)

It was that divine awareness   that gave her the incredible courage to approach the daughter of Pharaoh with advice regarding the baby in the basket. It also gave her the insight to prepare accordingly for their exodus from Egypt. The men of the Israelites were probably looking for the best walking apparel and carry bags to enter into the wilderness .Miriam, and her sisters , on the other hand, were gathering musical instruments. They simply "knew".

This then helps us top understand the final question.

Women according to our tradition,  sense G-d and spirituality from the” inside out” as opposed to Men who generally experience G-d and spirituality from the “outside in” . In the verse describing the creation of woman we read “And Hashem G-d built  (Va’Yiven ) the side that He had taken from man into a woman, and He brought her to man”. ‘The word va’yiven, which is derived from the same root as binah or spiritual intuition and understanding.

The men thereupon sing of the greatness of G-d’s miracle and describe every aspect and detail of the great miracle.

5The depths covered them; they descended into the depths like a stone.      6Your right hand, O Lord, is most powerful; Your right hand, O Lord, crushes the foe. ....8And with the breath of Your nostrils the waters were heaped up; the running water stood erect like a wall; the depths congealed in the heart of the sea.     ....10You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the powerful waters. 11Who is like You among the powerful, O Lord? Who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome for praises, performing wonders! 13WithYour loving kindness You led the people You redeemed; You led [them] with Your might to Your holy abode. 14Peoples heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia.( Exodus14:5-14)

Then Miriam and her sisters took the musical instruments they brought with and began to dance . They then "answered" the men.

What they were answering and saying to the men was that "It is really much simpler than all those details. It is all about Hashem being exalted”

"Sing to Hashem, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea ( ibid :20-21)"

Hashem is simply so elevated and exalted .All that was frighteningly Bitter ( Mar),  all that is so called “ reality “ was just thrown into the depths of the sea( Yam).

This then is the power of Miriam which we all need to aspire to become.

The power to banish the bitter with the cleansing power of the living waters.

The ability to sense the prophetic power ensconced within each soul.

And the power to sing and dance.

LeRefuat Yehudit Bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Chaya Esther