The Talmud states:
“Three good providers stood up for Israel: Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and for their sake three good gifts were conferred [upon Israel], the Well, the Pillar of Cloud and the Manna; the Well, for the merit of Miriam; the Pillar of Cloud for the merit of Aaron; the Manna for the merit of Moses”
שלשה פרנסים טובים עמדו לישראל אלו הן משה ואהרן ומרים וג‘ מתנות טובות ניתנו על ידם ואלו הן באר וענן ומן באר בזכות מרים עמוד ענן בזכות אהרן מן בזכות משה
(Talmud – Taanit 9a)
Miriam, along with her two brothers, Moshe and Aharon, provided the Jewish people with everything they needed to be redeemed and receive the Torah. They each “stood up” to do the will of HaShem like pillars, and through their actions brought both physical and spiritual sustenance to the nation.
But, while Moshe and Aharon held up the Jewish people as a whole (Moses through his teaching of the Torah and Aaron through his service as the Kohen Gadol), Miriam was the exclusive teacher and leader of the women. (Targum Yonatan, Micah 6:4)
Who Was Miriam?
Though Miriam is celebrated as the leader of the women, things could have turned out very differently had she not made an extreme effort to never lose sight of HaShem’s Guiding Hand. Miriam’s name literally means, “bitter water.” It bore witness to the harsh oppression of the Egyptian exile that had reached its height at the time of her birth.
“And they [the Egyptians] embittered their lives with hard work”
וַיְמָרְרוּ אֶת–חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה
Miriam felt the bitterness and pain of the Jewish people, and she could have easily been pulled under by it. Instead, she never lost sight of
[He] Who is On High
Part of her emunah and strength came from a prophecy she received when she was yet a small girl: “My mother will have a son who will redeem Israel.” (Talmud – Megillah 14a). Instead of dismissing this prophesy, she fiercely clung on to it, even in the face of the despondency, disbelief, and the outright denial of those around her.
But more than that, Miriam not only actively refused to back down from what she knew to be true, chazal tell us that she stood up for it time and time again.
When Miriam Stood Up to Pharaoh
We first meet Miriam just as a “new Pharaoh” ascends the throne in Egypt:
“There arose a new king over Egypt… And he spoke to the Hebrew midwives, the name of one was Shifrah and the name of the other Puah. And he said, ‘When you act as a midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthing stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter she shall live.’ But, the midwives feared G-d and did not act as the king of Egypt commanded them…” (Shemos 1:8-17).
According to Rashi (Shemos 1:15), the midwives were none other than Jocheved and Miriam. Jocheved, who was Miriam’s mother, was called Shifrah because she was expert in beautifying and cleansing the newborn (shafar means to “beautify”), while Miriam, was expert in soothing (from the word pa’a) the crying newborn.
But, according to the Midrash, Miriam was called Puah for another reason:
“She revealed her face brazenly (hofiah) against Pharaoh pronouncing, ‘Woe to this man, when G-d avenges him!’ He was enraged at her and wanted to kill her. But, Shifra appeased him, ‘Will you pay attention to her? She is a small child, and she doesn’t know anything!”
הופיעה פנים כנגד פרעה, וזקפה חטמה בו. ואמרה לו: אוי לו לאותו האיש, כשיבוא האלהים לפרע ממנו, נתמלא עליה חמה להרגה. שפרה, שהיתה משפרת על דברי בתה, ומפיסת עליה. אמרה לו: אתה משגיח עליה תינוקת היא, ואינה יודעת כלום
(Shemos Rabbah 1:13-17)
Miriam was only five years old when this happened, yet at such a tender age she had the strength and emunah to stand up to the most powerful ruler of the world.
When Miriam Stood Up to Amram
The midrash then goes on to relate how the young Miriam later stood up to her father, Amram, who was a tzaddik and the biggest, most respected leader of the generation:
When he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river’, he said: ‘In vain do we labor.’ He arose and divorced his wife. All [Jewish men] thus arose and divorced their wives [too]. His daughter [Miriam] said to him, ‘Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s; because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas you have decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world, whereas you have decreed concerning this world and the World to Come. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in your case, though you are righteous, it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled, as it is said: You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto you!’ He arose and took his wife back; and they [the Jewish men] all arose and took their wives back [too].
כיון שגזר פרעה, ואמר (שמות שם, כב): כל הבן הילוד. אמר עמרם: ולריק ישראל מולידים?! מיד הוציא את יוכבד ופרש עצמו מתשמיש המטה, וגרש את אשתו כשהיא מעוברת משלשה חודשים. עמדו כל ישראל וגרשו את נשותיהן. אמרה לו בתו: גזרתך קשה משל פרעה, שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים, ואתה על הזכרים ונקבות! פרעה רשע הוא, וגזרתו ספק מתקימת ספק אינה מתקימת, אבל אתה צדיק, וגזרתך מתקימת! עמד הוא והחזיר את אשתו, עמדו כל ישראל והחזירו את נשותיהם
(Shemos Rabbah ibid)
Miriam was just six years old when she confronted her father. She not only convinced Amram to remarry her mother, she indirectly re-united the families of the entire nation.
When Miriam Stood by the Reeds
When Moshe was born, the whole house was filled with a Godly light. Amram went to Miriam, kissed her on the head and proclaimed, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled!” But three months later, when the baby could no longer be hidden, and they were forced to cast him into the river, both Miriam’s mother and father succumbed to despair. Her father said: “Well, my daughter, where is your prophecy?” And when Moshe was put into the basket among the reeds, her mother hit her on the head and said, “My daughter, where is that prophecy?” (Midrash – Shemot Rabba 1:22; Talmud – Sotah 13a)
Yet Miriam, who was 7 at the time, did not share in their sorrow. Instead, she hid herself among the reeds at the river’s edge to see what would become of her prophecy.
“And his sister stood from a distance to know what would happen to him.”
וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק לְדֵעָה מַה יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ
“And she stood” – with Divine inspiration resting upon her. (Midrash – Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael)
Miriam had no doubt that her prophecy would be fulfilled; the only question was how. She didn’t have to wait long, either. Within minutes HaShem’s Guiding Hand was clearly revealed. Not only was Moshe saved, but he would grow up right in the palace of Pharoh, and his very own mother would nurse him.
When Miriam Stood by the Jewish Women
It would be 80 long, hard years before HaShem’s promise of redemption would be fulfilled. Throughout that time Miriam never stopped encouraging the Jewish women and infusing them with the emunah and knowledge they needed to rise above all the darkness and depression, and all the pain and the doubt, that surrounded them on a daily basis.
These women then encouraged and influenced their husbands to continue family life, preserving the continuity of the Jewish people and cultivating a national hope for the future. Each woman also forged a deep, personal connection to HaShem, and a constant striving for even greater closeness. In the end, chazal tell us, the women had achieved the level of the greatest tzaddikim.
All of this was in the merit of Miriam- a woman with boundless emunah who unconditionally stood up for the emes and brought everyone up along with her.
Three Valuable Lessons to Learn from Miriam
Thousands of years later, we can easily feel far removed from the events of the Egyptian galus and from all of those who lived during that time. Yet, our Sages tell us that Galus Mitzrayim is a prototype and the root of all future exiles (Bereishis Rabbah 16:4).
The truth is there are many lessons that we can learn from Miriam and her “students” which are both relevant and relatable to the challenges we, as Jewish women, are facing today.
Here are three important ones:
1. Don’t compromise on the things you know to be true. Though Miriam received D’var HaShem that the redemption was at hand, the reality is that all of the Jews at that time knew that there would be both a human redeemer and a redemption from Egypt (See Rashi to Shemos 3:18). The difference is that Miriam and eventually the Jewish women lived their lives in accordance with this truth.
There are many truths today that should be guiding our lives- whether it is promises of redemption, assistance, or on the other hand, distance and suffering- that HaShem has explicitly made or statements that our Sages have said. The challenge is living our lives in accordance with them.
2. Wait for HaShem’s yeshua. In life there will be ups and downs, revelations and concealment. During the times of concealment, our job is to let HaShem do His job.
As it says in Eicha,
Sit alone and be still because it hangs on Him (HaShem)
ישב בדד וידם כי נטל עליו
Miriam could have despaired at the decree, at her parent’s separation, again when Moshe was put into the river, or during the 80 years till the time for redemption had come. Yet, her emunah was unwavering. She didn’t budge because she knew that the yeshua would come in its time and that the “right time” was perfectly calibrated.
3. There is no room for despair. It could be said that bitterness was a part of Miriam’s essence- after all, the word mar (bitter) is a central part of her name as mentioned above. The bitter events of the Egyptian exile also surrounded her and the other women every single day. Miriam could have easily let herself be engulfed in suffering and misery; she could have claimed that she was a victim of circumstances.
Why not? Even her righteous parents had been effected.
But, instead of plummeting into the depths of despair, she chose to stand up, to fight to be connected to HaShem, to be the voice of truth and hope for the whole generation.
Chazal tell us that the Jews received the well that miraculously followed them through out their years in the desert in the merit of Miriam. According to the Maharal (Netzach Yisrael 54), a well symbolizes a Jew’s innate yearning and longing to be connected to HaShem since its water flows upward from the ground. Not only did Miriam personify this quality, but she actively sought to bring it out in those around her.
Ultimately, it was in the merit of this yearning to come close to HaShem, even in the midst of suffering and concealment, that the Jewish people were redeemed, and in this very same merit will we be redeemed again. May it happen speedily in our days.