7th Elul 15th August 2021
We read in the Book of Exodus that when the new Pharaoh became anxious about the “foreign” Israelites in Egypt becoming “too strong” for the native people, he commanded that all the baby boys must be killed at birth.
Midrash tells us that as a response to this Amram divorced his wife Yocheved, and because of his perceived status in the community, the rest of the Jewish men separated from their wives rather than bring children into this harsh and violent world. But Miriam, the daughter of Amram and Yocheved challenged him “Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you have decreed against both the males and the females [neither sons nor daughters would now be born]. Pharaoh decreed only for this world, but you decreed both for this world and the next. It is doubtful whether the decree of the wicked Pharaoh will be fulfilled, but you are righteous, and your decree will undoubtedly be fulfilled.” Amram understood what she was saying and returned to his wife, whom he remarried in a public celebration. The other Israelites saw and also returned to their wives (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai; Pesikta Rabbati 43).
According to tradition, the date of this remarriage of Amram and Yocheved was the 7th of Elul and as a consequence of their reunion, Moses was born.
The midrash fills a lacuna in the text, but it does so much more than that. The story of Miriam, a young female child who spoke up against the actions of the elders of the community, who saw not just the present situation of depression and fear but also the possible future. She saw greater unfairness heaped upon her sex. She is a voice for optimism and – amazingly – her voice is heeded.
If a young female child in such a patriarchal structure can have her voice heard and her words acted upon, then how much more so can we, in our modern structures, be heard? If the voice of what appears to be completely unfounded optimism can lead to action which will ultimately lead to the Israelites leaving slavery behind and building an eternal covenant with God, then how much more so should our small optimism be nurtured? Who knows what the future might be if we speak up for justice and for hope?
Many thanks for this. I cannot but notice the difference between what we make of the comments of a little girl thousands of years ago (assuming Miriam was real and not mythological) and what we make of the comments of big girls today. The experience of my friend Lyndsay Taylor-Guthartz is a case in point.
I hope we can meet some time and catch up. Whether we do or we don’t, please accept my best wishes for the forthcoming New Year.