Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16)
It is difficult to imagine the extent of the relief and joy the Jews must have felt upon reaching a safe haven on the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Our portion, Beshalach, describes the awesome song hundreds of thousands of people chanted after crossing the Red Sea (and our rabbis add that even the fetuses chanted the song in their mothers’ wombs) after leaving their enemies far behind.
The Torah does not share details about who sang the song, yet it does depart from its usual style, reporting at the end of the song: “And Miriam the prophetess, Aharon’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women came out after her with tambourines and with dances.” [Ex. 15:20]
This verse raises at least three questions. First, why is Miriam described as a prophetess? In the entire Five Books of Moses, none of the other main characters are explicitly referred to as prophets, though prophets they were. Moshe, the greatest prophet of all, is never referred to as such, and even Aharon, whom Hashem had told would be Moshe’s prophet and representative before Pharoah, never merit being called “Aharon the Prophet”.
The title “prophet” appears elsewhere, in prophetic books, as in, for example Gad the prophet and Nathan the prophet, but not in the Chumash. Why, then, does the Torah emphasize the fact that Miriam was a prophetess?
An additional question: why is Miriam called “Aharon’s sister”? We already know from earlier in the Book of Exodus that she was Aharon’s sister, and even if we hadn’t, why state that she was Aharon’s sister while omitting mention of her younger brother, Moshe?
A third question concerns the tambourines. Where had they obtained these? We have read that they had gold and silver vessels, which they borrowed from the Egyptians. We know that they had clothing as well. But instruments? Why would a slave in Egypt stash instruments in his closet, let alone a tambourine, to enjoy his non-existent spare time? In various midrashim, our rabbis struggle with these difficult questions, and tell us what was occurring behind the scenes.
Miriam is best understood as a pivotal leader in the Jewish People’s march toward salvation. After Pharaoh decreed that all male babies were to be drowned in the Nile, many men – under the leadership of Amram, the father of Miriam – separated from their wives, to avoid sentencing any future sons to an immediate death. It was at this grim moment that Miriam confronted her father, telling him that his decree was more harsh than Pharaoh’s: the Egyptian tyrant had decreed only against the male babies, while her father had sealed the fate of all unborn children. It was Miriam who then encouraged her father to re-marry Yocheved – and, by extension, all Jewish couples to re-marry – and to continue to bring children into the world.
It was Miriam who informed her father that he would have a son who would redeem the entire Jewish people. This was a prophetic vision of the birth of Moshe. This prophecy had propelled all of the ensuing events, and hence why Miriam was called a prophetess. The prophecy occurred before Moshe was born, when Miriam still had only one brother, Aharon, and this is why the verse only mentions him.
However, her prophecy went even further. When the Children of Israel left Egypt, she said to the women that Hashem would do miracles while they were en route, and urged them to take the type of gear they would need to express their great joy. According to the rabbis, “the righteous women of the generation were promised that the Holy One, Blessed Be He would perform miracles, and they took drums out of Egypt.”
Miriam’s story is truly remarkable. Born during the depths of the enslavement in Egypt, the very name given to her by her parents (the first two letters, “mem” and “resh”, together mean “bitter”) reflected the misery they felt.
However, she did not give in to what seemed like a hopeless reality. She decided to challenge the status quo. She encouraged and helped the pregnant women sidestep Pharaoh’s decree. She urged her friends and family to marry and have children. She boosted her parents’ and siblings’ spirits, and later, convinced an entire nation that they were on the righteous path, and that they could fulfill their calling. She believed that the difficult trek through the desert would produce miracles, so bringing celebratory musical instruments would be necessary. The Torah grants Miriam the title “prophetess” for good reason.
In every generation, “Miriams” have emerged and inspired a nation that had suffered and mourned so greatly, to embrace hope and faith. Last year, Israeli society discovered one of the “Miriams” of our generation. In a split second, the entire nation witnessed the unique character of Dafna Meir of Otniel, may Hashem avenge her blood. This was a mother murdered in her home while protecting her family under attack by a terrorist. She was magnanimous and giving, and she believed in giving life to the next generation, even while facing an enemy sworn to preventing the existence of a next generation of Jews in the Land of Israel.
This is what the “Miriams” of our generation provide for us: the inspiration and encouragement we need to prevail in this struggle of our people to remain in our homeland. With Hashem’s help, we will press ahead, with hopes for great success.