Numbers 19:1 to 22:1
Torah narration advances thirty eight years, the Israelites who fled Egypt as slaves are dying. A new leadership is created along with an upbeat spirit and military victories. Miriam, sister of Moses, also dies. With only five brief passages referring to her, what makes her so influential?
The “Law” referred to in the title of this week’s parsha refers to the “Law of the Red Cow” or “Law of the Red Heifer.” It describes the process of using the ashes of a red cow to purify anyone who has contact with a dead human being. (Num.19:10) The law’s origin and meaning are one of the biggest mysteries of the Torah…. However, this law introduces a parsha in which death is a major theme.
In this parsha Aaron, the high priest, dies and is replaced by his son, Eleazar. Moses learns that he will not enter the Promised Land, but still has an immense job of preparing the people for entry into the land.
… And we also learn of Miriam’s death: “The Israelites arrive in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, [in the fortieth year since leaving Egypt] and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water…” (Num. 20:1-2)
Miriam is one of the few women in Torah whose death is even mentioned. In addition “one rabbinic tradition (BT Baha Batra 27a) states that six people did not die as ordinary mortal do. By the conventional method, as explained by the Rabbis, it is the Angel of Death who takes individuals from this world. The six who did not die in this manner experience their deaths by God’s ‘kiss’ – that is, their lives were taken by God directly. These six were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.”(Eskenazi and Weiss, The Torah, A Women’s Commentary, p. 932)
Even though Miriam is only mentioned in five brief Torah passages, she is called a prophet (Exodus 15:20). However, her prophetic teachings are not recorded.
During the rest of this week’s comments I will examine these five passages in which Miriam is mentioned .… And try to determine why, in spite of her importance, so little of her story is included in Torah.
Exodus 2:4-8: The Egyptian ruler, fearing a Hebrew would lead a revolt, ordered all Hebrew male babies killed. Moses’ mother, in an attempt to save him, put the baby in a basket and placed it in the Nile. “And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.”
“The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child.’ Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?’ And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother.”
Even as a child, Miriam showed strong loyalty to family. She also demonstrates incredible confidence and quick thinking in her conversation with Pharaoh’s daughter.
Exodus 15:20-21: After the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, Moses sings the Song of the Sea. Torah continues: “Then Miriam, the prophet, Aaron’s sister picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the Eternal, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.”
Two short verses tell us that Miriam was a leader of the women and a firm believer in the Eternal.
Numbers-Chapter 12: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married; ‘He married a Cushite woman!” They said, ‘Has the Eternal spoken only through Moses?’” The Eternal, upon hearing this, calls Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and states that Moses is more than any other prophet. With Moses, the Eternal communicates “mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles.” God is angered at the words against Moses and punishes Miriam by causing her to have snow-white scales.
This quote, critical of Miriam, is the longest of the five. It almost seems as if the editors of Torah wanted to lower Miriam’s image. Other commentators have noted that Miriam’s comments about Moses show that she was concerned about how Moses treated his wife. They saw that Moses was more concerned with the law, his relations with the Eternal, and his politics … all were more important than his responsibilities to his wife.
Numbers 20:1: A single sentence – shown above – tells of Miriam’s death. The next statements in Torah tell of the lack of water. Some commentators have indicated that this placement indicates Miriam’s connection to a water supply. They contend that, as a result of her faith, the Eternal caused a water supply to follow her. When she died, the water also disappeared. In support of this idea, many families place a glass of water on the Passover table to remember Miriam’s role.
Numbers 26:59: Among the census at the end of Numbers is the following information: “The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt; she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and their sister Miriam.”
That’s all there is in Torah about Miriam… not much information. But, we do see a woman who believed in God and family. She may have been a woman who led the women of the community. While Moses was a teacher and lawgiver for the entire people, most of his laws and comments were directed at the male population. It has been speculated that Miriam was a highly respected teacher and advisor for women and families. This role in the community as an advocate, supporter of the Eternal, teacher, and family advisor may have helped create her reputation. However, unlike the roles of leader and high priest which were held by her brothers, the role of Miriam did not have a successor who was named in Torah.
However, this role of advocacy for women and some of what she may have taught could have led others to downplay her role in Torah.