Miriam: A Eulogy and a ‘Tikkun’

When I was in college, I taught Hebrew school on the weekends. At the same time, I was beginning my medical transition from “female” to “male.” Alas, this is not a coming-out speech, just one of the very rare moments that my being transgender is actually relevant. Because one Sunday morning, my voice was much deeper than it had been when I last saw the students. The students didn’t comment on or ask about my transition; as kids often are, they were nothing but self-absorbed and tolerant. However, all of a sudden, they started shutting up and listening to me when I talked. If you’ve ever gone to Hebrew school, you can imagine how shocked I was. Things were fine before; the kids were just taking a few seconds to quiet down and listen up. But once my voice dropped, they just straight up listened to me more. This turned out to be true in all aspects of my life. Sharing a thought in class, asking a question at a meeting, arguing with my roommates—people just paid more attention to me when my voice got deeper, more “manly.”

So that brings me to Miriam. Nestled away at the end of the second aliyah of Parshat Hukkat is Miriam’s death:

The children of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled at Kadesh. And Miriam died and was buried there.” (Numbers 20:1)

Most of the one pasuk that describes Miriam’s death is not actually about her death, but a pretty standard accounting of where and when the Israelites are at the time. Miriam gets five words: וַתָּ֤מָת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם. The language is unceremonious, almost indifferent. By contrast, Aaron, Miriam and Moses’ brother, also dies in our parsha, but his death is described with detail and fanfare. He goes up to a mountain, there’s a whole ritual wardrobe change for passing down the priesthood to Elazar, and the entire community mourns for 30 days (Numbers 20:24-29). It’s not written in the Torah or in rabbinic texts, but I’m sure that there was truly excellent minyan attendance for Aaron’s shiva the whole time.

So you see where I’m going with this. It’s not exactly a hiddush (new idea) to say that Miriam—the one woman in our trifecta of prophets in the book of Numbers—got the short end of the stick. She is not honored in her death, and neither is she in her life. She sings at the sea (that’s a cool moment), but after that, we hear about her when she gets punished for speaking badly about Moses and then only again when she dies. Her well is all nice and good, but it’s midrash and is not actually in the Torah, and, chronologically, isn’t even mentioned in commentaries until after her death.

That this is a wrong to be righted has been accepted to the degree that many communities have made ritual and liturgical changes to better honor her. As a child of the ’90s and a Reconstructionist rabbi, I grew up singing Miriam haNevi’a at Havdalah and raising Miriam’s cup at my family’s Passover seder. So in the spirit of that tradition, I would like to offer Miriam a more complete testament. I would like to celebrate how as Torah progresses into the interpretation of Hazal, our sages of blessed memory, we get a more complete, three-dimensional picture of Miriam.

According to a midrash in Talmudic tractate Sotah (11b), Miriam first appears in the Torah under another name: Puah. Puah is one of the Israelite midwives whom Pharaoh tells to kill all of the male Israelite babies. Throw back to Pesah. The other midwife mentioned is Shifra, which the gemara thinks is another name for Yocheved, Miriam’s Mom. Puah and Shifra (aka Miriam and Yocheved) disobey Pharaoh’s order to kill the male babies, instead letting the children live. When Pharaoh challenges them, they cunningly exploit his othering of the Israelites: “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (Exodus 1:19)   

Before I move on, this is the part where I found it very difficult to parse out what I had learned from midrash, from the film The Prince of Egypt and what is actually in the Torah. So I will just say this: Miriam helps the daughter of Pharaoh rescue baby Moses in the basket. She does not appear again until Shirat haYam (“The Song of the Sea,” Exodus 15). The big sibling “reveal” to Moshe with a lullaby and fighting and shock at Moshe’s rage? That is all Midrash Prince of Egypt.

So then Miriam sings at the sea, yay! We’ll skip that.

Next up, we’re in the desert, and the people are kvetching to Moshe as they do throughout the book of Numbers. “What’s up with this manna stuff, Moshe! We want a meat kiddush! Miriam and Aaron speak up as well.

וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה

Miriam and Aaron spoke with Moshe? About Moshe? Against him? Looking at the language, it’s not entirely clear which is meant here. What do they talk about?

עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽח׃

On account of the Cushite woman that he married. As he married a Cushite woman. (Numbers 12:1)

Is this Cushite woman Tziporah, Moshe’s wife, whom we’ve already heard about in the Torah, or does Moses have an additional wife? Are Miriam and Aaron intolerant of Moshe’s marriage to a non-Israelite? The Ramban, Ibn Ezra, a whole slew of commentators weigh in with explicit answers to these questions. I won’t spoil those for you. Rashi, the big guns, differs in his approach and offers a midrash in the name of Rabbi Natan. Someone comes to tell Moshe that these randos, Eldad and Meidad, were prophesying in the Israelite camp, and Tziporah, Moshe’s wife, hears. At the time, she happens to be standing next to Miriam. So Tziporah says, “Woe to the wives of these if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives just as my husband has separated from me!” She bemoans the distance in her relationship with Moshe due to his role as prophet. Miriam tells this to Aaron, and this verse (Numbers 12:1) is the two confronting Moses about his treatment of Tziporah.

I wanted to share this midrash because it is not exclusively about Miriam’s heroism, bravery and generosity. The whole situation is very vexing to the rabbis; it’s not clean-cut. Miriam is forced to navigate the choppy waters between her love and compassion for her sister-in-law, and her respect for Moses. While I am troubled by much surrounding the episode, I am grateful for the fuller, compromised picture of Miriam that it offers. Accepting that complexity is what it means to listen.

So to return back to the story of my voice. In order to undo that unconscious impulse to give greater attention to men’s voices, we must honor the Miriams in our history, in all of their complexity. And to be clear, there are many more than Miriam in our tradition. In Megillah 14a, the Talmud lists Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther all as prophetesses, each with her own proof texts of how she was a prophet.

But a really important piece of the story I told about my voice changing is that it was children who listened more to my deeper voice. Children who went to a shul where we sang Miriam ha’Neviah and where the senior rabbi is a woman. Children whose parents, like many of you, worked hard to expose them to strong female characters and to model equity in the home. We constantly receive so many subliminal messages from the media that we consume and from our social interactions that male voices are more worth listening to. Overcoming this internalized smog takes more than shifting the stories we tell, as important as that is. It takes daily reflection and transformation. So I have two examples to share about how to cultivate this gender mindfulness.

The first is to take a critical look at the media we consume. My favorite TV show ever is The Boondocks. It is hilarious; it is politically astute; and it has taught me a lot about racism. But there are very few women characters, and the ones that do exist are basically accessories to men. What has hearing almost exclusively male voices on my “go-to” show taught me to think about women’s voices? I haven’t totally given up The Boondocks. I’m trying to watch less, but, I’ve also tried to saturate my Facebook and Instagram feeds with women being awesome and smart on their own terms, as a kind of counterweight.

The second practice I’ve been working on is to interrupt men who have a pattern of interrupting women. I’m not going to pretend that this is easy; it’s not. It is such standard practice to interrupt women that it can be hard to notice when it’s happening. It can also be scary to put yourself out there. But it doesn’t have to be dramatic. I’ve found low-key phrases like, “I’m not sure Devora had finished her thought,” to be very helpful in work meetings. This is certainly the right thing to do. But I’ve found it to also be in my self-interest. When we let women get interrupted, even subconsciously, we take in the lesson; we inadvertently teach ourselves that women’s voices are not worth listening to. And this lesson closes off all of us. At points, our tradition has not exactly been kind to Miriam. Still, the midrash tells us that that her voice is worth listening to.

Amit teaches math and science at a Philadelphia high school. Hosting Shabbat meals is how he builds power for his union caucus, the Caucus of Working Educators. Talk to him about feminism and domestic labor in Jewish community. Otherwise, you can find him tending to plants in his garden or to his pet lizard, Bubsy. This “drash” first appeared in the newsletter of Congregation Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia.

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