Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Musings – what other foods might we put onto a seder plate?

It is becoming common now to have an alternative seder plate with foods to remind us about the importance of the festival themes. So there is an orange to represent the alienated and isolated Jews, be they women, gay, transgender… There is the olive to remind us of the need for peace in the world, and specifically the need to make peace between the Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants of the Land. There is the fairtraid cocoa bean and also the tomato, to remind us of the modern slavery endured by others in order that we have such products cheaply… There is the cup of water filled for Miriam the prophetess who is credited with providing water in the desert.

Image I was asked last year what else I might choose to put on a seder plate, and here is my response:

I would choose a pomegranate to be on my Seder plate as a reminder of the many different strands of my Judaism and the fact that I am free to have a complex layered understanding of tradition. The pomegranate is one of the seven species the bible tells us about growing in the land of Israel, (the shivat haminim), fruits which are traditionally eaten on Sukkot, a full half year from Pesach, a reminder of the connection to the Land to which I remain spiritually attached. It was said to be one of the fruits brought back by the spies to demonstrate the fertility of the land – a tempting luscious fruit that can only be eaten sensually, as Song of Songs reminds us.

Tradition tells us that a pomegranate has 613 seeds – equivalent to the mitzvot, and I particularly like the chutzpah of such a statement and that fact that we remember it while knowing that it is not remotely true. I like that the mitzvot are likened to the jewelled seeds, and the implication of richness and nourishment within them, while remembering the hard pip within each seed that can be both irritation and pleasure, and that can stay with one long after the juicy flesh has been taken. And I like the way that pomegranates are so useful in so many ways – as health food, as astringent, as spice and decoration, as traditional remedy for any number of ailments right through the body, as drink and paste and marinade. It prompts me to think of the multi-faceted ways Judaism is expressed, from the traditional covenantal relationship and discipline of mitzvot, to the loose warmth of ‘kitchen Judaism’ as people respond to the remembered smells of the different festival foods though the year.

Bible tells us that Aaron wore a special garment as high priest, and it was decorated with alternate bells and pomegranates on the hem, so that when he moved the sounds of these objects clashing would be heard and people would know he would be safe – indeed the bible is starkly clear – “so that he will not die”. This brings me from the sacrificial system of Biblical Judaism right into the modern world of Jewish community – people will pay attention to how others are, particularly those who are vulnerable. They will notice if they haven’t seen or heard them, and do something so that their lives are sustained and preserved. The pomegranate is the standard bearer for communication in community.

Another tradition tells us that the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve in Eden was not the apple (a later pun on the Latin ‘malum’ to mean both bad and apple) but the pomegranate. If it is truly the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it would be a potent reminder at Seder that we have choices in what we do, a freedom in our lives with consequent responsibilities. We cannot accuse others for our not having achieved what we know we should have, or take refuge in the modern day ‘slavery’ to routine. The pomegranate would challenge us –“know what is important, do what is right”.

A pomegranate is similar in shape to a grenade (indeed its name in both English and Hebrew reflects this) and so it would be a salutary reminder that even that which is beautiful and health giving could easily become dangerous and destructive in the wrong circumstances, another warning on the Seder table to remind us that our Judaism can either sustain us in living well or in living selfishly and without care or thought for the other among whom we live. Choose Life! says the bible, but both blessing and curse are set before us and it is our freedom to decide which way to go.

And finally – the best way to eat a pomegranate is to cut it into two pieces, turn each upside down in one hand and hit it with a wooden spoon so that the seeds fall into a waiting container. A satisfying if difficult thing to do well, a metaphor for much of the Jewish world one might think. But the best bit comes last – once the Seder is over and a home must be found for the objects on the Seder plate, to eat a wonderful juicy fresh pomegranate must be the best end to the ritual I can think of!