The Wisdom of Miriam
The first portion of the Book of Exodus is one of transformation – the children of Israel, the family of Jacob, become the “Hebrews” and the Children of Israel, with a national focus. The family of Amram and Yocheved become the first family of Israel, as Moses is transformed from infant to impulsive young man, to leader and prophet. The process of transformation in each case is both moving and beautiful.
I would like to focus my thoughts on Miriam, Moses’ sister who watches carefully as the Daughter of Pharoah reaches out to draw Moses from the water. She is a young girl but she has great concern for the fate of her baby brother. As Pharoah’s daughter takes pity on the child and decides to care for him, Miriam is there on the spot to suggest her own mother as a wet-nurse for the new baby. “So the girl went and called the child’s mother” (Exodus 2:8).
Later on in the Bible, we learn more about Miriam. We learn that she is a leader and initiator, as she leads the women in song and dance after the parting of the Red Sea. “And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously, horse and driver He has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). And we learn that Miriam is an outspoken woman and she is punished by God with leprosy when she gossips about her brother’s wife. And when she dies, she is mourned by the entire nation.
The Midrash tells a fascinating story about Miriam that adds an additional dimension to her character but is quite consistent with the qualities we already see in the Biblical story. After Pharaoh decrees the death of all Jewish babies, insisting that they be thrown mercilessly into the Nile, the Midrash tells us that many men separated from their wives, so as not to risk pregnancy and the birth of a baby that would then be slaughtered by Pharaoh. Amram and Yocheved separated as well. However, Miriam with a wisdom and poignancy far exceeding her years scolds her father and insists that her parents come back together. She tells them: isn’t it enough that Pharaoh has decreed death to the sons of Israel – by separating, you are decreeing death on both the sons and daughters of Israel! Moved by their daughter’s anguish, Amram and Yocheved reunite and the result is the birth of Moses.
The message of this tale is indeed powerful and it is this message that has resonated with Jewish students for centuries. Amram and Yocheved tried to avoid what they perceived as certain tragedy, by ensuring that no future children would be born in their family. But they did not take into account God’s role in the situation. Miriam essentially told her parents that if God wanted their child to survive, the child would be a girl. What Miriam and her parents could not envision is that the son that would be born from their union would actually save the Jewish people and be God’s own messenger to them.
It was not for Amram and Yocheved to try and outsmart the decree, nor outsmart God. It was for them to continue doing what they knew was right, and to rely on God to bring salvation. As we continue to build homes and deepen our roots in Judea and Samaria, despite the various peace plans that are placed on and off the table, we follow this same message. It is not for us to stop building in order to avoid having our homes destroyed. We must continue doing what we can and trust God to save us. And if our houses are destroyed, we will have to accept it as God’s will.
Shalom from Samaria,
Sondra Oster Baras
Director, Israel Office