Wondrous watching: Miriam's role

Miriam stood by to watch her little brother in the Nile. Her reward was great.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
Flash 90

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Before the infant Moshe (Moses) was born, Pharaoh had heard from his astrologers that the savior of the Hebrews would be born at that time. He therefore decreed that all male newborn babies should be thrown into the Nile. Since Moshe was born prematurely, Yocheved his mother was able to hide him for three months. She then put him into a tar covered basket and placed the basket among the reeds in the Nile. Big sister Miriam, all of about five years old, placed herself some distance away to watch and see what would become of it.

These actions seem rather strange. Wouldn’t continuing to hide the baby be somewhat less dangerous than setting him adrift in what was possibly a crocodile infested Nile with no one around? Certainly, Miriam, at such a tender age, could do nothing to save him. Why was she waiting nearby? Finally, we are told that because Miriam waited for a short period of time to see what would become of it here, all the Israelites, along with the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the clouds of Glory waited a full week before moving on when Miriam was stricken with the malady tzoraat. What’s the connection between the two?

While Miriam certainly chose to stand watch, the grammatical configuration of the word suggests that she was also compelled to stand there, writes Rabbi Munk. As Rav Hirsch explains, the force of the moment was overwhelming, and Miriam was somewhat transfixed in watching mode. But if she herself could do nothing to save her brother, what compelled her to stay and what was she watching for?

While Miriam was watching the basket, one could also translate the verse to say that she wanted to know what would become of it, not its occupant. According to the Medrash, Miriam had prophesied that her parents would give birth to a boy who would then become the savior of Israel. The baby in the basket was the future savior and, according to Rabbi Druck in Dorash Mordechai, she couldn’t bear to see him suffer alone. Perhaps she could do nothing physically to help him, but she could certainly empathize with him and feel his pain. Empathy, to be noseh bohl, im chaveroh, to carry the burden together with another, and thus at least symbolically lessening his burden, is a major tenet in Yiddishkeit. By sharing that burden, one helps bring the salvation.

Perhaps that is why the Ramban calls the Book of Exodus Sefer Hageulah, the Book of Redemption, for even in this first parsha which delineates the onset of the enslavement, we get glimpses of the traits which helped us merit the later redemption.

Certainly Miriam could physically do nothing, just as we often can do nothing to materially change a situation. But we can identify with the pain, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai. We can include others who suffer in our tefillot, never limiting our prayers to our own troubles. We can join in communitywide events. While we may feel we may be able to accomplish more on our own, we must always work within the framework of the community, never separating ourselves from their efforts, writes Rabbi Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim.  This is the reason Hashem first appeared to Moshe in a lowly, thorn bush, to let Moshe know that Hashem too was suffering as long as the Jews were suffering. Hashem Himself was part of the community.

This strong feeling of empathy is a major difference between Bnei Yisroel, the Jewish people, and the nations. Look at how Hagar responded to what she thought was her son’s imminent death. She was concerned only with her own suffering and put him aside so she wouldn’t see his suffering. In contrast, Miriam took upon herself her brother’s suffering. Even brother Aaron, a mere three year old, was watching and crying, for the verse says that when Pharaoh’s daughter reached for the basket, she heard a lad crying, not a baby crying.

Rabbi Frand continues this theme by noting that of the eighty years leading up to Moshe’s calling to lead Bnei Yisroel out of Egypt, the Torah records only four events of his life, each revealing his empathy with another. We first see him leaving the palace where he was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter specifically to see in the suffering of his brethren. The Medrash tells us that he carried boulders on his own shoulders so that he could truly feel what they were experiencing. The second event is when he sees an Egyptian hitting a Jewish slave. He comes to the slave’s rescue, kills the Egyptian, and buries him in the sand. In the third incident, he sees two Jews brawling. He cannot tolerate the fighting and tries to intervene. Finally, he comes to the aid of complete strangers, the daughters of Yitro, who are being tormented by other shepherds.

Each of these incidents proves that a Jewish leader, unlike other leaders, must have compassion and empathy not only for his own people, but even for others.

Rabbi Frand cites Rabbi Finkel who notes that during the Holocaust, one inmate of each six was given a blanket. That one prisoner could have kept himself a little warmer by personally using the blanket. Instead, he generally shared the blanket with the other five prisoners. This empathy is in the genetic DNA of the Jewish people, Am Yisroel.

Our Patriarch Avraham himself exhibited this trait by praying for the people of Sodom with whom he had no connection and who were deemed evil by God Himself. You may be unable to do anything else, but you can feel and you can pray.

Rabbi Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv notes that four fifths of the Jews in Egypt died during the Plague of Darkness and were not redeemed. Why? Because these people exhibited no empathy for their brothers. Therefore, they were unworthy of being saved. When Bnei Yisroel pay attention to the hardship of their brothers, Hashem also pays attention.

Besides feelings of empathy, the Torah writes that Miriam was waiting to see what would happen to it. Rabbi Scheinerman addresses this question in Ohel Moshe. Rabbi Scheinerman reminds us that Miriam had prophesied that this baby would be the savior of Bnei Yisroel. Of the veracity of this prophecy Miriam had no doubt. What she was waiting to see was how that prophecy would be fulfilled, what would happen to it, to the prophecy.

So she watched from afar and waited for the salvation, never losing faith that the baby, and Bnei Yisroel, would be saved. This is the legacy Miriam left to Bnei Yisroel, to believe and to have faith despite all logic. Just as a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman, defying all logic, could have a baby that would be the ancestor of a great nation, so did Miriam continue to have faith that a baby cast upon the Nile would be saved, and so must we have faith in the prophecies of our return and salvation despite events to the contrary. Despair is not part of our DNA.

Rabbi Scheinerman continues. We know that material things are completely controlled by Hashem, but we have a choice in our faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Nevertheless, there is an element of Hashem’s involvement even in matters of faith, provided we want His help. Rabbi Scheinerman cites the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert as proof. Did any of the artisans know what they were doing? Did they attend construction seminars and craft classes? But anyone whose heart motivated him was able to contribute not just with materials but also with skills that Hashem then gave him, based on his desire to contribute and his faith that he could contribute. 

The Saba of Novardhok would say that he never asked himself if he could do something; he would ask himself if he needed to do something. And so he convinced himself that he could succeed, and indeed he did all his life.

Often when we pray, writes Rabbi Druck, we ask Hashem for very specific things, and Hashem does not grant them. Often what we ask for is not right for us. Hashem will find what is right for us, and the particular shidduch or the exact job we were requesting may be wrong for us. Hashem will provide the appropriate shidduch or a different job as He sees best. Miriam teaches us that Hashem is in charge, and things will play out as they need to play out for our benefit.

We are now ready to discuss our third question: How could Miriam’s waiting on the shore for a short time merit having the entire nation and Hashem Himself wait a full week for her to be healed from her tzoraat after she had spoken with a taint of slander, loshon horo, about Moshe? Rabbi Zaichick explains in his book Ohr Chodosh that Hashem computes the reward merited not so much on what was accomplished as on what effort and what self sacrifice one put into the work. Only Hashem could know the depth and extent of effort and pain.

Although Miriam waited and watched for only a short time, the pain must have been excruciating. And yet, she could not leave her brother alone in the Nile. That hour she waited for Hashem to enact His plan for Moshe earned her a full seven days of Bnei Yisroel and Hashem Himself waiting for her. How much reward can we merit by utilizing our time, especially those difficult moments, effectively.

Further, notes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, Miriam’s reward proves to us that Hashem never forgets anything but waits for the right time to compensate one for his effort. Eighty years after Miriam’s selflessness in Egypt, Hashem rewarded her in the desert. Miriam believed that if Hashem gave her a prophecy it would come true, writes Rabbi Koffman in Mishchat Shemen. Since she waited for Hashem to validate that prophecy, Hashem waited for her.

Rabbi Shmulevitz, cited in Letitcha Elyon, notes How exact is Hashem’s timing. Precisely at the moment that Hashem seems to be distancing Himself from Miriam by punishing her with tzoraas, He draws her closer by waiting for her.

One more question remains. How could a mother put her baby in the Nile, and if she did, why wasn’t she herself there watching over him? Rabbi Frand notes that Yocheved would have been conspicuous on the shore, while the  child Miriam would not be.

More importantly, Rabbi Uziel Milevsky, the Ner Uziel, offers a unique insight into why Yocheved placed Moshe in the water. She hoped that since Pharaoh’s astrologers had advised killing the newborn boys through drowning them in the Nile, they would envision Moshe in the water and assume the danger of the redeemer being born was over. Then they would sound the “all clear”, the infanticide would be over, and Yocheved would retrieve her son. According to Rabbi Milevsky, Miriam was waiting for that announcement.

Rabbi Munk in The Call of Torah cites Abarbanel in understanding this verse symbolically. Just as Miriam stood from afar to watch over her brother in the waters of the Nile, so does Hashem watch over Bnei Yisroel from a distance as we are among the nations. Just as Hashem then took Yocheved’s desperate action and used it as the catalyst for Moshe’s being raised in the palace and becoming the deliverer of Bnei Yisroel, so will He also take our desperation and arrange events for our ultimate deliverance. As the Maharsha says, occasionally Hashem gives us a glimpse into His thought processes in spite of the distance between us.