Powerful Currents

A lone, strong woman emerges from the biblical story of Miriam, sister of Moses

Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan
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Avirama Golan
Avirama Golan

The sages admit that the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt was a typical case of cherchez la femme. Although our great rabbis did not claim that behind every man who went out of Egypt, there was a woman, in the lengthy discussion of the issue of "by virtue of righteous women," they actually said a great deal more: that had the women not accelerated, swiftly and courageously, the salvation of the entire population, the men would not have had the gumption to depart from the house of slavery and embark on the long journey to freedom. Yet nevertheless, it appears that the primal, mythological story that every Jewish boy and girl learns in school describes women as playing the role of observers from the sidelines - of child-bearers and midwives, mothers and wives and daughters, or at most - dancers. Righteous people, but not leaders.

Ostensibly, this entire story is about baby Moses, who was hidden in a little ark, grew up in Pharaoh's home, went out to herd sheep and found a burning bush. And even though he stuttered and was inarticulate, he became the greatest leader of Israel of all time, guided our forefathers through the wilderness and led them almost to the Promised Land, which he himself was not allowed to enter.

But only ostensibly. Because this whole story, the foundation story of the birth of the Jewish people as a nation, is accompanied by a woman, who was there and not there, and who earned the title "prophetess." The biblical verses that tell of her life and character are as few as raindrops in a desert. The reader does not know, from the outset, where she appeared from all of a sudden, or when she was born, and wonders how it was that she died a hasty death and no one took the time to mourn her death properly. The Midrash tries to fill in the huge lack of detailed information and of descriptions of the emotions associated with her, with almost nothing to go on.

Quiet, standing at a distance, watching over history the whole time, but never afraid to risk the heavy price of history's influence on her - this woman is Miriam, whom the Bible called "Aaron's sister," to whom the sages gave credit for the birth of the savior of the people, and whom Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz admiringly calls "the big sister." Miriam, the very powerful, key feminine figure, who is like a well bubbling up in the desert, imbuing the story of salvation with life.

Who is this girl standing among the reeds who, with her eyes burning, gazes at the small basket of bulrushes as it drifts with the current into the broad river? She is little Miriam. Six years old, no more, standing and watching over her brother. Swaddled in his diapers, he floats, cradled by the murky water, where danger lurks on every side. Her tiny feet are soaked with mud. Her knees and thighs are scratched by the reeds. The burning Egyptian sun beats down on her head. The lurking crocodiles waiting to ambush smuggled Jewish babies frighten her less than the sound of the footsteps in the grass.

"And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him." She is responsible for him. The baby is her mother's and her father's, but also hers. Ten months before he was born, her father Amram, from the tribe of Levi, came to her mother Yocheved, and with a face wrathful in its helplessness, he hoarsely announced that he was divorcing her. "Take the little ones and leave here," he said. "Return to your parents' home."

Yocheved did not argue. The stunned neighbors who had gathered in the yard listened as Amram shouted in a thundering voice what she did not need to hear, what she knew anyway. What she knew was not being shouted for her benefit. "Pharaoh has made a decree against the males, and this nation cannot survive!" he shouted. "It is better that we have no more children," he added, as though pleading.

Yocheved did not reply, and he looked for something else to say. "We labor in vain. Go!" he shouted, as though she were not standing there in the doorway, silent, biting her lips. "You are divorced," he said finally in a broken voice. She turned her face away.

"Yocheved!" She quickly gathered the possessions she had bundled up that morning; with her eyes she ordered Miriam to follow her and she walked out. Little Aaron straggled after them, crying bitterly. Miriam held his hand. Until the end of the path, until she could no longer see it, she kept looking back. With hard eyes Miriam looked at her father. She did not cry.

Several days later Amram, the eldest and wisest of his generation, sat surrounded by mourning elders. In his wake, all of them had divorced their wives and sent them away. Helpless and sad, they were drawn to one another and to their books. Suddenly the large door opened and a gust of wind blew in. A girl of five, her long hair flowing like a waterfall over her shoulders and her eyes aflame, ran in and stood in front of the respected leader. "Daddy," she said to him. He did not reply. "Daddy," she said more loudly, "I'm talking to you."

The elders were shocked by the temerity.

"Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh's," she said.

"What?"

"Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh's. Pharaoh decreed only against the males. You have decreed against both the males and the females."

"What?" Now all the elders raised their voices. "What is she saying? Who has given her permission?"

"Pharaoh decreed only against this world, and you decreed against both this world and the next world."

The elders went silent and looked at Amram. He was white as a sheet. "Pharaoh is evil. Perhaps his decree will be carried out and perhaps it will not. And you ..." her voice trembled.

"I ..." He bent down to her. His shoulders were sunken. He wanted to touch her, but held back.

"You are a righteous man." The little girl swallowed and bowed her head. "You are a righteous man, and therefore your decree will be fulfilled." She put her hand over her mouth and went silent.

Who is this little girl, whose father is carrying her through the streets of the big city, his eyes filled with tears, while constantly hugging and kissing her? His strides are long and the notables of the city who walk behind him are huffing and puffing, and cannot keep up with him. Who is this little girl whose laughter rolls through the frightened silence of the neighborhood, until it reaches the door of their homes? All the women come out to see what is happening. And her mother runs out to her, laughing and crying. Who is this little one, whose eyes are burning and who is saying, "Mommy, Mommy, I told him! I told him, that my mother is going to give birth to a son who saves Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, you see? I told him."

Who is this girl, who slides out of her father's arms and runs so quickly to her mother, this girl whose parents are standing in the street, in the hot Egyptian wind, hugging each other tightly, as though the setting sun has anointed them with great hope?

Her father Amram hitched a large, flower-decked cart to two sturdy horses. He erected a white wedding canopy, embroidered with scrolls of blue, in the city square. Next to every home the Hebrews all erected canopies of their own. The air trembled at once, before night fell on the street, when Amram again called Yocheved his wife - and the entire city answered him. My wife, said the men. My husband, answered the women. From the windows of the nearby houses the Egyptians peeked out at them, with hatred, with suspicion and with pity.

Nine months after the wedding, it was not yet dawn and Yocheved bit her lips so that the neighbors would not hear her screams of pain. After all, she herself was a midwife and because of that, between the waves of pain that followed one another in succession, she managed swiftly to instruct the girl: "Now I will push and you hold the head. Now we will rest."

The mother grasped the rolled up sheets. The girl put a small hand on her belly. The mother inhaled air; the daughter exhaled it. "Now," said Yocheved. The little girl carefully touched the damp head covered in black down. "Now," the deep groan issued from both of their throats as if from the belly of the earth.

"Now, now," the mother strained with all her might. With infinite gentleness the little girl pulled at the tiny shoulders. The infant's body slid into the tiny midwife's small hands. His mouth gaped wide in the dimness of the room. For an instant the mother and the daughter locked eyes. A son. Before they could tear their eyes off each other, he bleated quietly. Shhh ... Miriam whispered to him and quickly placed him at his mother's breast. Shhh ... Not yet washed, the new baby rested, wrapped and hidden in clean white cloth on the breathing belly, and nursed.

In the adjacent room blinding light dazzled Amram's eyes. Aaron clung to him in wonder and alarm. Maybe it is the morning that has broken suddenly, thought Amram. But no. This is a different light. The girl was right.

Perhaps that is why she was called Miriam, from the Hebrew root meaning to rebel. But she was also called prophetess because she prophesied - she prophesied, according to the sages, her brother's birth and his great role. Afterward, when her mother had to hide the baby in the ark, her father patted her frustratedly on the head. "My daughter," he chided her anxiously, "where are your prophesies?" Therefore, when she stood off at a distance, she, too, wanted to know what would happen with her prophecy.

It was Miriam the responsible, the omnipotent perhaps, who suggested to Pharaoh's daughter that she take a wet nurse from among the Hebrew women. Thus she ensured that the baby would be given the double education that would train him for leadership: He would learn the ways of the world in the king's palace, and take in with his mother's milk the heritage of his people.

In nearly all the history of our people in the desert, Miriam's name is hidden. In retrospect it emerges that the other part of her personality was there all the time. Not the rebellious part, miri, but the water part, yam. She - who was born by the wide, cursed waters of the Nile into which her brother Moses was put and from which he was rescued, which before her eyes turned to blood, which was polluted with frogs, which was filled with the corpses of the Egyptians' first-born sons, youths and boys - carried in her name, Miriam, the bubbling of clear water.

And when she faced the many times greater and more tempestuous waters, the waters of the sea, and the occurence of the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, her brother sang the great, epic song. "I will sing unto the Lord for he hath triumphed gloriously," he sang alone, as always, to God. The men sang after him in response. And then, all of a sudden, Miriam's voice was heard again. She did not sing to God. She took the timbrel in her hand, and sang to herself. The women - who until now had stood off to the side, astounded by the force of the decisive masculine strength - burst into song and dance.

Anyone who wants to can, of course, conclude from this story that men and women cannot worship together. Good for him. Others can hear, through the laconic description, the storm of mass emotion raging in women's dance. All of the senses, all of the urges, all of the silenced voices of the maidens, the women and the mothers who had suffered double slavery - erupted like a cascade of water in this singing. All of Miriam's daring, revolutionary joie de vivre flowed through the melody and the dance that responded to her brother's song. This is how Hebrew women's song was born, echoing with the voices of innumerable women from the surrounding ancient cultures.

"A well thanks to Miriam," said the sages. As long as she lived, there was water for the Children of Israel, for her wondrous well accompanied them in the desert. So wondrous, that it was considered one of the 10 things that were created on the evening of the seventh day of Creation at twilight. The sages described it in fairy-tale terms. To this day there are those who seek its twinkling reflection on rainy spring days in Lake Kinneret, or in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Girls' schools in various places are called Be'er Miriam - Miriam's Well. The intention is that in the spirit of those pure waters, they will educate the girls.

Did she marry? Did she have children? Our rabbis wanted to believe she did. They attached her, in an unconvincing way, to Caleb ben Jephunneh and perhaps to a different Caleb (nowhere is it hinted that she is the mother of Achsah, Caleb's daughter), and they related that Bezalel, the builder of the Temple, was a descendent of hers, and that the Judean dynasty was descended from her. In any case, a lone and strong woman emerges from the biblical story.

Of all the women who surrounded Moses, it was the big sister who was always present in his life. Whether as a boy or as a man. Therefore he was perhaps a little afraid of her and respected her. And only she dared to tell him - even after he had become almost a god in the eyes of those around him - everything she felt and thought. Including the most stringent criticism. And as in her girlhood, when she dared burst into the convocation of elders and challenged her father Amram, she again endangered herself before the great leader, in order to protect others. Not children, this time. Her words cascaded forth, like great waters.

It was a day of celebration. Moses had appointed people to important positions. Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. Everyone was singing clapping their hands. Only Zipporah, Moses' wife, was standing off to one side and shaking her head.

"What's the matter?" asked Miriam.

"Alas, for their wives, if they have need of prophesy," replied Zipporah. "And they remove themselves from their wives the way Moses my husband has removed himself from me."

Miriam went over to Aaron. "What has happened to your brother?" she scolded. Their parents had died long ago. She felt more responsible than ever. The peace-loving Aaron tried to smooth things over, and spoke with Moses. On that same day Miriam was stricken with leprosy. The mouth that had spoken crackled with sores and pain.

In his book "Kebetokh shelo" ("On His Own"), Dr. Gideon Ofrat suggests the daring possibility that "woman is leprosy" - i.e., that Hebrew culture sees women's sexuality itself as leprosy. His assumption is based on early and later texts. Foremost among them is S.Y. Agnon's "Shira," the protagonists of which are able to have congress with their spouses only in the lepers' hospital. In this context, Moses' outcry, "Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee," is infinitely more tragic. The author of the splendid epic of the horses and the riders in the sea suddenly utters, when he cannot help his beloved sister at all, only fragments of tortured syllables. The people, for its part, refuses to move until she recovers, so great was her power.

"And Miriam died there, and was buried there," relates Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers. "And there was no water for the congregation." It is impossible not to see the fateful connection between the two parts of this passage. The Children of Israel did not weep over Miriam and they did not eulogize her, they did not bid her farewell and they did not mourn her. Insensitive, sunk in their day-to-day needs, hasty and impatient, with a tired and bitter leader at their head, they continued on their way. Suddenly the water ceased to flow.

Again, as always, the wanderers in the desert looked toward Moses and complained to him. Again they demanded that he perform a miracle. Again the great prophet cried out to God and again he received instructions about how to deal with them. "And speak ye unto the rock," God said to him. Speak. Wait. Temperately, temperately. Like your sister Miriam waited on the bank of the Nile. Remember her temperateness.

But Moses no longer had the strength. "Hear now, ye rebels," he shouted at the congregation, and at once lifted up his hand and smote the rock with his rod. Not once. Twice. Like someone at his wit's end. Alone, without Miriam's good and open eye and sensible words, Moses and Aaron received the terrible punishment: "Therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them." And the waters were called the waters of Meribah, because the Children of Israel strove with the Lord."

Who is this little girl, gazing from afar from within a cloud of mist at the weeping old man, ascending the mountain and looking out to the land that he will never enter? Who is she, whose eyes are burning with love for him and can no longer touch him and comfort him. She is Miriam.

Now Aaron, the man of morality and love, is also dead. Moses is alone. Very slowly, bent over, in pain, 120 years old, he ascends the mountain. In his heart he knows that had he only been able to speak, to wait, to listen - perhaps his people's fate would have been different.

Perhaps he would not have had, with a broken heart, to give up the leadership. Perhaps he would not have been succeeded by Joshua, the daring fighter, thirsty for battle and impatient. Perhaps instead Miriam's time would have come. Not Miriam herself. Everything that is Miriam, even in the hearts of wise men: unquiet waters and revolutionary daring, mingled with patience and temperance.

Tired, waiting for death, Moses lifts up his eyes, the eyes of a child that were not dim, their vitality unabated, to the small cloud of mist, which for a moment looked to him like a curling vapor of pure water. Familiar, known to him, watching over him from afar. "Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth." From moment to moment, his power of speech overcame his exhaustion and fear. "My doctrine shall drop down as the rain, my speech shall distill as the dew."

The moment passed. It passed in the wind of the water cloud. Moses died and Joshua, at the head of the army, prepared for occupation and war.

Part of a story in progress.

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