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Why Miriam is mostly nameless in the Torah

  • AvivaThurgood
I feel a strong affinity with Pesach. Being a woman, I am immensely proud of the famous Midrash which tells of the women in Egypt who, despite incredible hardship and 210 years of slavery, wanted to continue the Jewish nation and would bring their husbands food on copper mirrors.
by AVIVA THURGOOD | Mar 29, 2018

The men would see their wives’ reflection, and despite extreme exhaustion, hunger and destitution, they were encouraged to have children. New life and new beginnings, despite a world filled with pain, brought hope for change. These women were the reason that the Jewish people were redeemed.

But there is one particular woman who embodies this sense of hope: Moshe’s sister, Miriam.

Being a midwife, Miriam valiantly saved baby boys, defying the decree of Pharaoh to throw them into the River Nile. She was the one to reunite her parents and from that union emerged Moshe. Even a preschool child can sing the song about Moshe floating down the River Nile under the watchful gaze of his sister Miriam – isn’t it interesting that her name is not mentioned directly?

In Shmot chapter 1, verse 15 we read: “The King of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the first was Shifra and the name of the second was Puah. He said: “In your assisting the Hebrew women at childbirth … if it is a son, you are to kill him, and if it is a daughter, she shall live. But the midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they kept the boys alive.”

Rashi enlightens us and says that Shifra is Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Puah is Miriam. What they did was a courageous act, yet they are not mentioned by name.

Miriam’s second story is where she famously accuses her father, Amram, of being worse than Pharaoh, who condemned the boys to death. She was angry because she said Amram was preventing even the girls from being born. You see, Amram separated from his wife to protect himself from the pain of losing a child. He did this because he didn’t want to have to watch his potential sons being killed because of the decree.

Miriam however, according to Rashi (Shmot, chapter 2 verse 1) knew through prophesy that from the union of her parents would come the Jewish people’s saviour. So, she accuses her father of being worse than Pharaoh for he was preventing girls from being born. As Amram was a leader, this meant that all of his men had followed his example and so no children were being born. Again, Miriam’s act was courageous, yet she is not named.

The third story we all know about Miriam is that she follows the basket with Moshe lying inside and watches over it, protecting him and finally offering the princess Batya a Jewish wet nurse (her mother Yocheved) when Moshe is found. Again, she is simply called “his sister” in the Bible and remains nameless.

It takes a full 15 chapters for the Torah to mention Miriam by name. In Beshalach, chapter 15, verse 20 it says: "Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand and all the women went forth after her with tambourines and danced. Miriam called out to them, ‘Sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.’”

There are three obvious questions here. Firstly, why does it take 15 chapters to mention Miriam by name? Why is she called a prophetess and why is she called the sister of Aaron, not Moshe?

Our first introduction to Miriam by name teaches us the greatest lesson in who Miriam really was. Besides standing up to Pharaoh and her father, and being proactive with baby Moshe, she was a prophetess, a person with vision and dreams. Miriam’s first prophecy is that her parents will birth the redeemer. Miriam is a young girl at the time, but she believes in her prophecy and convinces her parents to marry again.

Imagine her elation at seeing the potential of her prophecy become a reality, but then he is taken by Princes Batya into Pharaoh’s palace. She could have lost faith, but she doesn’t.

When Moshe kills the Egyptian and is forced to flee, there must have been many who predicted that she was wrong, for how could Moshe be the redeemer if he’s run away?

Many years pass – difficult years of hard labour – and Moshe returns, only for Pharaoh to make the work harder. Through it all, Miriam’s faith in her prophecy and in G-d never waiver.

The 10 plagues culminate in the splitting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army. At last, the Jewish people are free, Miriam’s prophecy has come true and she leads with the women in singing and dancing.

Her prophecy that she made before Moshe was born, when she was only the sister of Aaron, has come true. It’s therefore appropriate that this is the first time we are introduced to her in the Torah, by name, as a prophetess, as the sister of Aaron.

It takes 80 years for Miriam’s prophecy to come true – practically a lifetime. There is another thing that stands out for me, in all the hustle and bustle of leaving Egypt: Where did Miriam and the women find time to pack tambourines? There wasn’t even enough time to let the bread rise! I believe the only way that they could have had those tambourines easily accessible is if they were hanging on a hook at their front door. Imagine believing in a prophecy so strongly that for 80 years your tambourine is ready at any moment to sing the praises of G-d for your redemption.

This Pesach, let’s take the time to revisit our hopes and dreams. Let’s reaffirm our belief that G-d can make it happen and let’s hang up a tambourine at our front door. Let us also remember what Miriam did for our people.

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