Miriam – One of Her Kind

Trace the significant events in Miriam's life; securing Moshe, leading the people, slander and punishment, as well as her death and its aftermath

We first meet Miriam as a courageous young girl, in Parshat Shemot, at the beginning of Moshe’s life. Curiously, her name is not revealed, but her identity is obvious since she is described as Moshe’s sister. Though their mother, Yocheved, attempted to avert Pharaoh’s decree of drowning male newborns and save Moshe’s life by placing him in a casket in the Nile, it was Miriam’s daring and resourcefulness that actually kept him alive. She watched over her infant brother in the river as his fate hung in the balance. At the tender age of six, she approached Pharaoh’s daughter and arranged for their own mother to nurse Moshe on behalf of the princess.

Next, in Parshat Beshalach, we encounter Miriam’s musical trait. By now the female leader of the Jewish Nation, she instigated a female ensemble which praised God for the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. Despite her initial anonymity as Moshe’s protector, in this episode Miriam is described both as Aharon’s sister and as prophetess.

We may have thought that by now Miriam was sufficiently famous in her own right, without linking her to one of her famous brothers. Secondly, if she was going to be described as someone’s relative, the most fitting description is that of Moshe’s sister. After all, her caring for Moshe is our introduction to Miriam. Thirdly, this is the first time that Miriam is described as a prophetess so we need to ask when she established her credentials as one. Finally, we can ask what the familial connection with Aharon adds to our knowledge of Miriam as a prophetess. The commentators offer an array of positive and negative responses to these questions.

Rashi answers our questions with historic reasoning. “When did she prophesy? When she was known [only] as Aharon’s sister, before Moshe was born, when she said, ‘My mother is destined to bear a son [who will save Israel].’ Another explanation of “Aharon’s sister” is because Aharon risked his life for her when she was afflicted with leprosy, and therefore she is called by his name.”

The Ramban on the other hand uses Miriam’s lack of individual standing to bolster Aharon’s diminished status. “The correct reason in my mind [for “Aharon’s sister”] is that because Moshe and Miriam are mentioned in The Song of the Sea, whereas Aharon is not mentioned there. Therefore, the text wants to mention Aharon in order to give him honor since he was Miriam’s elder brother. Also his sister [Miriam] the prophetess is referred to as Aharon’s sister since Aharon was a prophet and holy too, and this is the text’s way of honoring the oldest sibling.”

Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch proffers a more egalitarian logic. “[Why is Miriam called “Aharon’s sister”?] Amongst the women she occupied the position that Aharon held amongst the men. As Aharon spread amongst the men the Word that was revealed to Moshe, so did Miriam amongst the women. “

The next portrayal of Miriam is in Parshat Beha’alotcha where, for the first time, a negative picture of this leader is painted. Miriam and Aharon slandered Moshe for his foreign [Cushite] wife. Miriam is considered the initiator of the slander since she started the conversation with Aharon, and was therefore afflicted with leprosy, the classical Biblical punishment for slander. As a result, she was incarcerated for seven days and the Jewish nation was unable to continue its travels without her.

Of particular interest is the triangular relationship among the siblings. Miriam, first described as Moshe’s sister and then as Aharon’s sister, was cured by the intervention of first Aharon and then Moshe. Notably, she is called only Miriam in this story and not someone’s relative. Blame is personal and her guilt cannot be ascribed to others. The Midrash lightens Miriam’s guilt by suggesting that Miriam criticised not Moshe’s marriage but his deserting his wife in favour of his pressing public duties. Whatever the actual slander, the Midrash appreciates Miriam’s female empathy with her abandoned sister-in-law and her emphasis on family life as a higher Jewish value.

The final chapter in Miriam’s story, her death, is told succinctly in this week’s Parsha, Chukat. Unlike her brothers, there is neither preparation for her death nor any public mourning thereafter. Lest we think that Miriam’s passing went unnoticed, immediately following her death the nation grumbled about the lack of water. The juxtaposition of Miriam’s death to the drought teaches us that through her merits, the Jewish people enjoyed a nomadic well which accompanied them in their desert wanderings during her lifetime.

From here on, Moshe and Aharon never regained their former status. The nation, who had taken Miriam’s leadership for granted, lost faith and yet again opposed Moshe and Aharon. Moshe, who had always relied on his older sister to stand by his side, collapsed emotionally. He reproached the people for their demand for water and brought the desired water by hitting the rock instead of obeying God’s instructions to speak to it. He was rebuked by God for these actions and was denied entry into Israel. Soon afterwards, Aharon and then Moshe died.

Miriam was only fully appreciated when she was no longer there.

As the source of both water and wisdom, she was “The fountain of wisdom [as] a rushing stream.” (Proverbs)