Bringing Miriam to the Table

By Prof. Zehavit Gross,Chairholder, UNESCO CHAIR for Values Education, Tolerance and Peace, at the School of Education, Bar Ilan University, Israel.

Let us add to the Seder table a fifth cup – a beautiful glass of water in honor of Miriam, the sister of Moses, as a Feminist act that cherishes and recognizes Miriam’s unique contribution to the Exodus of the Children of Israel from bondage to redemption!

Passover is the holiday of freedom and the holiday of redemption, but it is also a holiday in which the children of Israel were saved through water. As in other Jewish exemplary stories, women have a central place in the story of salvation and redemption, and because of their feminine agency and their long-term vision, they de facto change reality by using justice and caring.

The true heroine of the story of redemption is Miriam, the sister of Moses. The heroic story of the Exodus begins with a dramatic encounter and a sharp argument between Miriam and her father, Amram. The Book of Exodus which describes the exodus from Egypt begins with the words, “And a man of Levi went and took the daughter of Levi.” This is a surprising opening to a historical account that is so dramatic. The commentators explain that the journey of the Levi man, that is, of Amram to the daughter of Levi (to Yocheved) was inspired and initiated by Miriam, who is the central director of the plot and the principal actress. As it is said: “And a man went out of the house of Levi, and took the daughter of Levi” (Shemot 2: 1) “And a man went out of the house of Levi,” Where did he go? Rav Yehuda bar Zvina said: He followed his daughter’s advice”.

When Miriam discovers that following the decree of Pharaoh to kill all the Jewish males, that her father Amram decides to divorce her mother and not bring more children into the world and so do all his contemporaries, she is angry with him and argues and bargains with him. She tells him that his (Amram’s) divorce was worse than Pharaoh’s decree, since Pharaoh forbade bringing sons into the world, but by the fact that Amram divorces her mother  and decides not to bring more children into the world, but he decreed the death of women.

The understanding that women also have the right to exist in a world even where there are no men completely escaped from Amram’s consciousness. Yet, his daughter is giving him an intensive educational lesson on the subject. Miriam employs an agency to create Justice and this causes her father to undergo a transformative process which generates Caring. Amram, who was one of the leaders of the generation of that period, recovered from the terrible error he committed and remarried his wife, and all the other men of his generation followed suit. In the midst of a harsh and bloody genocide that is taking place in Egypt by Pharaoh, when everything looks dark and hopeless, Miriam lights a small candle that expels a lot of darkness and creates hope.

Thus, the dispute between Miriam and her father caused him to undergo a radical transformation and a paradigm shift, at the end of which he married his wife Yocheved a second time and gave birth to a baby – Moses – the savior of Israel. When Moses was born, Miriam understood that her mission had not been completed. Her mother managed to hide him for three months, but as he grew a bit older she realized that he had no hope so she put the baby in a pitch-covered basket on the Nile and his sister Miriam hid to see what would happen to her vision. Despite Pharaoh’s unambiguous decree to cast to the Nile the males, she violated the command and preserved the male who is slowly moving  through a basket along the Nile.

The root of the word Miriam in Hebrew is ME.R.Y which means rebellion and  Ma-yi-m water. The entire story of Miriam’s life moves through a constant whirlpool of rebellion that takes place in the context of water. Miriam the opinion-maker does not give up. After her mother puts Moses in a box, she stood behind the reeds and waited to see where the water would lead her vision. Then she noticed the daughter of Pharaoh descending to the Nile, opening the box and falling in love with the beautiful baby who was full of light and deciding to adopt him despite her father’s explicit decree to kill every Jewish male. Miriam employed again her agency and offers the princess a nurse who would breastfeed the baby and allow the baby to exist and her vision was realized.

This is a feminine conspiracy between two courageous women who decide to generate life and bring the redemption. Moses, who grew up in the house of Pharaoh, eventually became the savior of Israel and he was the one who brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt. But a moment before leaving Egypt, Miriam once again took the initiative and decided to take with her on her bag a tambourine. In her vision she saw the approaching redemption and made sure that she had a musical instrument whose sounds the women would dance at the moment of God’s great miracle. Instead of filling her backpack with physical sustenance, she preferred to take something spiritual with her – a tambourine whose emanation stems from the depths of the soul. Only a woman with a great spirit and vision can in the moment of liberation from the cruel and vicious enemy think to bring a musical instrument to be used at the moment of redemption.

Indeed, when Moshe bursts into singing after the great miracle in which the sea divided and the Israelites passed on land, she swept around her all the women who sang and danced with the tambourine she prepared in advance as an act of hope. The men were still broken from the burden of enslavement and trauma in Egypt, but the women, who understood the extent of the hour, broke into Miriam’s dance accompanied by the great singing that is well known as “the Song at the Sea”. They repeated again and again the song attributed to Miriam saying: “Sing unto G-d, for He has triumphed greatly; horse and rider He cast into the sea”( Exodus 15: 20-21).

The singing of women expresses a joy that bursts from the depths of the soul. It is a dance of faith and hope that was done as a conscious planned act under the guidance of the leadership of Miriam the prophetess. Throughout the development of the plot Miriam reveals leadership and agency. The Torah tells us that as long as Miriam lived there was a well of water accompanying the Israelites in the desert and, as soon as Miriam died, the water ceased. It is only after the top of the tree is cut that people understand how much they have been protected by their shadow. It was only after Miriam died that everyone understood that the water that accompanied them during their stay in the desert was thanks to Miriam and her inspiration, which is why she is known as the “Well of Miriam.”

In view of the above it seems that the true heroine of the story of the Exodus from Egypt is Miriam the Prophetess. All along, she changes the plot and creates a new reality driven by a vision that it preaches and achieves. But despite its central role in the story of the exodus from Egypt, she is de facto absent from the Seder table. The Haggadah and the story that we are telling in the Seder is not a static but a dynamic one, and every one of us is required every year to add to it. Therefore, let us add this year to the Seder table a fifth glass – a beautiful glass of water (high on foot) in the honor of Miriam, sister of Moses, as a feminist act that recognizes Miriam’s unique contribution to the spiritual removal of the sons and daughters of Israel from bondage to redemption! When we turn towards the glass of water we should say: “In memory of Miriam, the sister of Moses, who dared to argue and to create through her vision a world of hope and redemption, all wrapped in song and faith. We will sing the song of her life – the Song of Victory and Redemption: ” Sing unto G-d, for He has triumphed greatly; horse and rider He cast into the sea”.

Wishing you all a Happy Passover!