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.

Naamah, wife of Noah, sings as she goes about her work. Her voice calls to us as the world is remade

The first thing we learn about Noah is his genealogy  as the generations that separate him from Adam are listed – he is the tenth generation since the creation of humanity and ten is a powerful symbolic number in bible. (Gen5)

The second thing we learn about Noah is a connection between him and the ur-ancestors Adam and Eve, with the verbal root ayin-tzaddi-beit, (the noun itz’von – hard work/ creative work being used earlier for Eve and then for Adam and then not used again in Hebrew Bible)

The third thing we learn is that his name, Noah, meaning ‘rest’ or ‘repose’, but midrashically stretched to mean ‘comfort’ is somehow the counter to the idea of itz’von, that this one,  Noah, y’nachameinu – will comfort us – in our work (ma’asei) and the creative work of our hands (itz’von yadeinu), from the ground which the Eternal has cursed (Gen 5:29)  This is the first time that a name has been explained in bible since the first couple were named.

And the fourth thing we learn is that unlike his nine ancestors, Noah waited a long, long time before having children.  Five times longer than the usual delay – he was 500 years old before fathering a child.

The text has signalled that this man, the tenth generation of human beings, is notable. In some way he is born to mitigate the sheer hard work of creative exertion that has been the lot of human beings since leaving Eden.  And indeed he does alter the course of human history, becoming himself the ur-ancestor for the post-flood generations. And he is a late starter.

Why does Noah wait to have his children? One midrash tells us that God had made him impotent for the first 500 years in order not to have older children at the time of the flood which took place in his 600th year. (Gen Rabbah 26:2). Had his children been wicked they would have been killed alongside the rest of humanity, had they been righteous they would have had to make arks of their own, so the midrash places them at the cusp of adulthood – hence the delay in their births.

A much later commentary (Sefer haYashar) suggests another reason – that Noah knew that he would be bringing children into a corrupt world and chose not to do so. God had to remind him of his duty to find a wife and to have children, and to take that wife into the future in order that more children might  be born after the end of the flood.

I would like to add a third explanation – that just as the child of Sarah was to be the chosen heir to Abraham, so too does the saved remnant of humanity need to be the child of a particular woman.  For the text signals something very powerful about the mother of Shem, Ham and Japhet – she appears five separate times in the bible, and yet her name is omitted from the text.

In all but one of her appearances she is listed after Noah and his sons, and before the wives of the sons, but in the penultimate verse God tells Noah to “Go forth from the ark, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons’ wives with you” but they actually leave in a different order –Noah, his sons, his wife and their wives.

It feels like a moment has been missed. That moment is in need of revisiting and the wife of Noah in need of being rescued from her erasure.

The midrash tells us that the wife of Noah had a name, she was called Naamah.  How do they know? Because we know of a Naamah, the daughter of Lamech and Zillah, and sister of Tubal Cain – she is the only single woman listed in these early genealogies (and the other two women are the two wives of Lamech) and so must be of some importance, though the text does not tell us what.  Her name may give us another clue to her special abilities- the root primarily means to be pleasant, but it also has the connotation of melody and of singing. Naamah, whose brothers are each named for an aspect of human activity (the children of Lamech’s other wife, Adah are Jubal, the founder of the music of harp and pipe, and Jabal the patron of tent dwellers and cattle raisers, while her full brother Tubal Cain is the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron)is not given a role in the text – but surely her pleasant and calm singing voice forms a backdrop to the story much as the singing of a niggun helps us to focus on our own prayer.

Maybe this is her downfall – the musicality of a woman’s voice has certainly become something to fear for some rabbis and commentators.  Maybe her name had to be erased from the text lest her singing lead us to really notice her, make us ask why Noah waited so long to marry her and have children with her, make us wonder what qualities she had that would lead her to being effectively the second Eve, the mother of all living after the flood.

And there is something else that makes the modern feminist want to winkle out more about this unnamed but significant woman – the later midrash and the mystical literature choose to take her name (pleasant/lovely/musical) and transform her into the feared seductress of men, the woman who married the fallen angel Shamadon and who mothered the most fearful demon of all, Ashmodeus, the king of the demonic world. Whenever a woman is trashed in rabbinic literature, called a seducer, a demon, a killer of babies, a prostitute or a witch– there we know we can find a woman whose strength of mind, whose scholarship, whose sense of self is powerful and outspoken. We find a strong woman who scares a certain kind of weak man. Lilith the first wife of Adam who chose not to be secondary to him; Eve whose actions led to the curse of ceaseless work;  Deborah likened to a wasp who moves from being a judge in biblical text to a teacher of established laws as commentaries take over; Huldah described as an irritant, a hornet; Beruriah the scholarly wife of Rabbi Meir whose end was to be seduced by one of his students and so committed suicide…..

A woman’s voice is her sexuality, and takes her from her assigned role of quiet service to others, to one of power and of public awareness. No wonder poor Naamah was hidden in the text, no wonder that even when God said she should leave the ark immediately after Noah and before her sons and their families, when it came to it she was described as having left after her sons, relegated to the status of secondary character  yet again.  Midrash goes on to trash her further, calling her an idolatrous woman who used her voice to sing to idols (Genesis Rabbah 23) The statement by Abba b. Kahana, that Naamah gained her name (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God is rapidly overturned in majority opinion and recorded texts. She is other, she is frightening, and she is the mother of the demon king. Let’s keep her quiet, unassuming, disappeared….

The role of women beyond child bearing and rearing is sometimes frustratingly alarming to the rabbinic world view. Naamah has adult children who themselves are married – her role is apparently fulfilled, we learn of no further children of Noah after the flood, so what else should she be doing? No doubt she knew, but we can only guess.

There she is, the descendant of Cain, bringing his descendants back into play in the world, providing a sort of redemption to the first biblical murder and fratricide.

There she is, the new mother of all living, as everyone now will descend from her and Noah, bringing to fruition the promise made on the birth and naming of Noah, “’This shall comfort us in our work and in the toil of our hands, which comes from the ground which the Eternal has cursed.”

There she is, released from the burden of Eve, having finished with the work of childbirth and instead supervising the recreation of the post-diluvian world while her drunken husband passed authority to their sons.

There she is, the singer, whose voice echoes the voice of God as the world is once again put back together after the chaos of the flood.

Abba bar Kahana, the 3rd century amora and one of the greatest exponents of aggadah tells us that she was called Naamah (pleasant) because her conduct was pleasing to God. This teaching has been overlaid and overturned in tradition, the idea being apparently too awful for some rabbinic teachers to contemplate. Her conduct was pleasing to God. God noticed her. She was the woman destined to be the mother of all who live since the flood. About time her voice is heard again, singing as she goes about her work.