Remembering Miriam

A closer look at Moses's sister.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Miriam, like Moses, and Aaron, was a child of Amram and Jochebed, both of the tribe of Levi. The prophet Micah recognizes all three siblings as Israel's leaders when he proclaims in God's name: "I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead you" (Micah 6:4). Although the Bible preserves only a few direct references to Miriam, her importance to the Israelites' story shines through even this leanest of biographical sketches. 

women's torah commentaryFirst, Miriam is called a prophet (in Exodus 15:20), although her prophetic teachings are not recorded. Second, she sings and leads the women in song to God following her people's safe passage across the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:21). Third, she (along with Aaron) speaks out against Moses about his wife and his authority (12:1-2). Fourth, she is shut out of the camp when she is stricken with skin disease; tellingly, the Israelites refuse to move on until she returns (12:10-15). Finally, she dies and is buried in Kadesh (20:1), a place name that evokes the holy (kadosh). These few references to Miriam are but clues to the larger story of her life and importance.

Let us imagine that larger story by creating a midrash. Picture Moses as he climbed Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land he would never enter and to experience God's drawing out his soul as gently as a kiss draws out the breath (Deuteronomy 34; on God's kiss, see Post-biblical Interpretations, p. 932, at "Miriam died there"). What was he thinking at that moment? In the midrash we are creating we may imagine that this inspiring leader thought about the future of his people and about who would preserve the Covenant for future generations. First, he considered Aaron's son Eleazar, who would carryon the priestly functions; he could reassure himself that the priests would preserve the teachings of the Torah. Indeed, for a time, the priests did maintain their role.

However, following the destruction of the Second Temple, the priests no longer played a central role in the people's observance of the Covenant. Moses then thought of Joshua, who was chosen to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. He could reassure himself that through the land, the faith would be preserved. Yet for nearly two millennia, the people of Israel would live in exile from the Promised Land. Finally, Moses then thought of Miriam. But failing to recognize earlier what she had contributed to preserving the faith, he realized that he had made no effort to ensure that her function be taken up by someone else.

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Carol Ochs teaches at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is currently preparing a new edition of her book Women and Spirituality for Rowman and Littlefield Press.