Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Shabbat Chukat

Moses and Aaron’s big sister was a great lady in her own right,
but Torah did not give her just due. Let’s correct the record.

           You heard the seven verses I read at the end of Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers  concerning the death of and mourning for Aaron. Those of you who are regulars on Simchat Torah are familiar with the last chapter of the Torah, Deuteronomy 34, which concerns the death of Moses. “So Moses, the servant of God, died there in the land of Moab at the command of the Eternal. He buried him in the valley of the land of Moab near Beth-peor, and no one knows his burial place to this day . . . Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated, and the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for 30 days.”

           So in this week’s sedra Aaron’s death is described, followed by a 30-day period of mourning; and at the very end of our Torah Moses’s death is described, followed by a 30-day period of mourning. But, my friends, if you weren’t doing a close reading of this week’s Torah portion, it would be easy to miss the death notice of a great lady. Chapter 20 of Numbers begins: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and she was buried there.”

          Not even one full verse is devoted to Miriam’s death. To be precise, five words – vatamat sham Miryam vatikavayr sham. That’s all; no obituary, no Shloshim. “Miriam died there, and she was buried there.”

          Is it right that Miriam – who was responsible for the life of Moses, who did so much for her family and her people – should be given absolutely no tribute when she died? Perhaps this is an indication of the sexism, the male chauvinism, of the biblical authors who were all men. Was the death of a woman, even Miriam, Aaron and Moses’ big sister not all that important for them?

          I do not think that the biblical authors did right by Miriam and I hope to correct the record, at least for us here tonight. But I know that I am not the first Jewish teacher to sense the gap in this week’s Sedra. As you know, Midrash is the rabbis’ attempt to elaborate on the often sparse Torah text, to embellish, to fill in where they believe there are missing pieces. Furthermore, as I’ve tried to teach over the years, Midrash is a living process. Midrashim are being written today, and many of the very best are being written by female scholars, who see the text through different eyes than their male predecessors and peers. So this evening I want to share with you two traditional midrashim and one new midrash, all of which attempt to fill in the details we sense were unfairly omitted about Miriam. Listen to these three midrashim and you’ll realize what a great lady Miriam was.

          We meet Moses for the first time in Exodus, Chapter Two. The opening verse says: “A certain man of the house of Levi took a wife from the tribe of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son.” That son was Moses, and the man was Amram and the woman Yocheved. Now the rabbis say: wait a minute. This verse makes it sound as if Moses was a first-born child, and we know that Amram and Yocheved already had two children – Miriam and Aaron.

          But you see, when Pharaoh issued his decree that the midwives were to report the birth of any Hebrew male child, who would then be killed, many Israelites – including Amram and Yocheved – separated from each other and decided not to have any more children. Can we blame them? They said with good logic, ‘what’s the sense of bringing children into this kind of a world? What’s the purpose of going through nine months of pregnancy only to have the Egyptian police come and murder your newborn child before your eyes?’

          But, according to the rabbis, Miriam intervened. She said: “You are doing the work of Pharaoh. In fact, your decree is even more effective than Pharaoh’s. By separating from each other and not having children, you are doing what he wants. His decree that male children should be killed may be carried out or it may not be carried out; but, by not having any more children you are surely carrying out his plan.” And so Miriam pestered and prodded, argued and nudged – “I want a baby brother!” – until she persuaded her parents to have another child. And that is how Moses was conceived.

           Think about it. The whole fate of the Jewish people could have been very different if were it not for the birth of Moses. And it is Miriam who was responsible for persuading her parents to have him. Should we not be grateful for what this woman did? Where would we Jews be without Miriam?

          Exodus, Chapter Two, continues with the report that when Moses’ mother saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. Now listen: “And his sister stationed herself at a distance to learn what would befall him.”

          Now you remember that the daughter of Pharaoh came to bathe, spied the basket, and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it and saw there was a child, a boy crying, she took pity on it and said: “This must be a Hebrew child.” And our Torah text continues: “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.”

          “His sister,” “the girl.” Doesn’t she deserve to be mentioned by name? This is the person who came running forward when the daughter of Pharaoh found the floating crib. This is “the girl” who persuaded the princess to hire Moses’s own mother to be his nursemaid, to do what she wanted to do most in the world, and get paid for it. And all Miriam gets is a brief mention – “his sister”, “the girl”. Is that fair?

          There is a young female scholar by the name of Nechama Goldberg who imagined what it must have been like when Miriam hid in the bushes and waited to see what would happen. This is the way Ms. Goldberg pictures the scene.

           “Her gaze remained fixed, focused between the thistles that moved in the wind. A certain of mist swayed back and forth casting a haze over what she saw. She shifted positions silently, ever so slightly, so that her line of vision would remain clear and unobstructed. Her eyes never wavered. They remained as if transfixed, tracking the object of her fixation. There it was: a tiny papyrus basket, black-tarred on the outside, greasing its silent slide farther and farther away from the shore, away from her, away from everything. It was as if she believed that the power of her concentrated watch could spin out an invisible rope that would anchor his basket to her, and that by being constantly vigilant, she could help to save him from drowning in the whirlpool of waters that surrounded him.”

           What if Miriam had not been such a faithful guardian? What if she had not stayed on sentry duty for however long it took until the daughter of Pharaoh showed up? If that had happened, the story would have ended before it began. It is possible that Moses might have been taken into the palace of Pharaoh, but he might never have known that he was an Israelite. He might have ended up as a Prince of Egypt. Who knows? He might even have ended up as a Pharaoh himself. But there would have been no exodus, there would have been no Israelite people, there would have been no Torah if it were not for Miriam’s faithful work in the bulrushes.

           And yet all she gets is that brief reference: “His sister stood nearby to see what would happen to him.” Good for Nechama Goldberg for having filled in the vacuum and for giving Miriam the credit that she so justly deserves.

          The third midrash fills in another gap in the story. When the Israelites come through the waters of the Reed Sea safely and realize that they are rescued, our Torah says: “Then Miriam, the prophetess . . . took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women took their timbrels and sang and danced with Miriam.” (Exodus 15:20) So the Midrash asks a very simple question – where did they get the tambourines or timbrels – hand drums? Friends, were there music stores in the wilderness? And the rabbis answer.

           “Miriam instructed the women, on the night before they left Egypt, to be sure and pack tambourines into their suitcases when they left.” Now the men must have complained, as they always do when their wives pack. They probably said: what do you need these things for? You think we’re going to a rock concert? Do you realize how heavy these hand drums are? You think we’re going to have porters to carry our stuff for us?

          But the women then – as women sometimes do now – ignored their husbands and packed their timbrels, because they had faith in Miriam and believed that she knew what she was doing. And sure enough, when they lived through the miracle of the crossing of the sea, they had tambourines at hand with which they could go out and sing and dance to the glory of God.

           And the men? Well, the men probably said to themselves “we’re sure glad that our wives listened to us and took along tambourines as we told them to.”

          Full Disclosure Footnote: Early on in this lesson, I was critical of the male Biblical authors for slighting Miriam. I stand by the criticism, but in fairness they did – with one word – acknowledge Miriam’s unique role. “Vatikaoh Miriam ha-neviah – then Miriam the prophetess took a timbrel in her hand.” The only female in the Torah to be called a prophet is Miriam. And in all 39 Books of the Tanach, she is one of only four women accorded this lofty title. For trivia players, the other three are Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah.

           So what do we learn from these two old and one new midrashim? From the first, the one in which Miriam persuaded her parents to reunite and have another child despite Pharaoh’s order, we learn how deep Miriam’s faith was and how determined she was not to surrender to despair, or let her parents give up either.

          From the second midrash, Nechama Goldberg’s, we learn details of how diligently and faithfully Miriam stood guard by the river’s edge until Pharaoh’s daughter arrived. We see how attached she was to her brother, and how determined she was to do everything she could to save his life.

           And from the third midrash, the one about how she persuaded the women to bring along timbrels when they left Egypt – and they were leaving in a hurry don’t forget, and they needed to be reminded what to bring, just in case they would need them – we learn that Miriam was someone who not only had faith in the future, but who planned ahead to be ready to meet the future when it came.

          Friends, this was no ordinary lady – not by any means. Yes, she was a fallible human being with faults. On occasion Miriam liked a juicy word of gossip – who doesn’t? But she was a woman of enormous love of life and of exemplary courage, and she played a central role in the exodus which should not be forgotten.

           Was she married? If she was, our Torah does not say so. But, again, the rabbis who wrote Midrash were curious and filled in the gap. They claim she was married to Bezalel, the man who built the Mishkan. If so, what a creative marriage it must have been – the union of a dancer and an architect.

          Did they have children? Torah doesn’t say a word, so the Midrash imagines that Caleb, the partner of Joshua, who went with him to spy out the land and who was one of only two – Joshua and Caleb – who brought back an encouraging word. The Midrash says Caleb was Miriam’s grandchild. And if that is so, how proud his bubbe must have been of him. Surely Caleb inherited his courage and love of life from her.

           My friends, when we describe the Torah, we say it is the Five Books of Moses. So every week, when we study his teachings, we bring honor to Moses’ memory.

          And in a Traditional Synagogue, before we read Torah, the first person called up to bless it is a Kohen, a descendant of Aaron. Furthermore, Jewish people remember Aaron every time we utter the Priestly Benediction, as do Christians as well. With those 15 majestic words from Numbers 6 which begin: “May the Lord bless you and keep you”, we honor Aaron’s memory.

          But until fairly recently, the Jewish people had no way in which we honored the memory of Miriam. Now we do. Some of us bring her to our seder table. In honor of Miriam, we place a cup of clear water on the seder table right next to the cup of Elijah. The rationale for this new custom is found in chapter 20 of Numbers which we are studying tonight. “Miriam died there and was buried there” – five Hebrew words – and here is the exact text which follows that spare, unadorned announcement. “The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron.” According to Jewish tradition, throughout the 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Children of Israel were blessed with a miraculous well of water which followed them wherever they went. It was called “Miriam’s Well”, for it existed due to the merit of Miriam.

           The source of this legend flows – pun intended – from the fact that the Torah tells us “Miriam died there and was buried there” and in the very next sentence says: “The community was without water and they joined against Moses and Aaron.” From this juxtaposition of sentences and ideas, the rabbis deduced that Miriam was the source of the water in the first place.

          So when we adopt this new tradition of Miriam’s Cup on the seder table, the spirit of Miriam continues to live in us, with us, and through us.

          If I had been there on that sad day when Miriam died, and if I had been the one to give the eulogy for her, these are some of the things which I would have said. And then I would have ended the service with these words.

           “Now the time has come for this good woman to go to her well-earned rest. We pray tihay nishmata tsurura bitzror hachayim – may the soul of this great lady, Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved, who has served God so very well in her lifetime, now find peace and blessing and reward under the wings of the Shechina. May her soul be bound up with the souls of the righteous of all the generations. May God be her portion, and may she rest in peace. And to this, let us all say ‘Amen’.”

I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Reimer for much of this message.