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For the week ending 12 November 2016 / 11 Heshvan 5777

Miriam in Egypt

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Maria

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for answering my question about who Miriam was and the meaning of her name. I found your answer to be fascinating, and if you don’t mind I’d like to know more. Could you please tell me about her life and her role in the Torah?

Dear Maria,

In a previous article called “Miriam’s Name” we saw that Miriam was the eldest sibling of Aaron and Moses, and that she too was a prophet. The early events of her life revolve around these points. But since her story is so fascinating, I’ll have to focus on the early period of her life in this installment, while concluding with the events of her later life in the Wilderness in the next installment.

The Torah relates (Ex. 1:15-17), “Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birth stool, if it is a son you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live’. The midwives, however, feared G-d; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live.”

The Talmudic Sages taught (Sotah 11a) that these midwives, Shifra and Puah, were actually Yocheved and her daughter Miriam, respectively. Miriam was only five years old at the time, but she accompanied her mother to help deliver and save the Hebrew infants (Ex. Rabbah 1:13). Thus the Sages note that her zealous character was apparent at a very early age. It was in this merit that G-d “made houses for them” (Ex. 1:21), establishing the Priestly dynasty from Yocheved, and the Davidic dynasty from Miriam (Ex. Rabbah 1:17).

The Midrash (Ex. Rabbah 1:13) explains that the Torah refers to Miriam in her role as midwife by the name “Puah” based on the meaning of various permutations of that word: She made bubbles (nofa’at) with wine with her mouth to amuse the infant, she revived (mefiah) the infant and she lifted (hofiah) Israel’s hope up to G-d. In alternate explanations based on “lifted” (hofiah), she was called Puah because she raised her face in rebellion against Pharaoh’s decree, and even raised objection to her father’s well-intentioned, but mistaken, separation of Jewish marriages (see more below). As discussed in “Miriam’s Name”, these two latter explanations are related to the inference of “rebellion” (meri) in the name Miriam. The Talmud (Sotah 11a) adds two more reasons why she was called Puah, based on the word “poah” meaning “to speak”, because she would coo the infant with comforting sounds (Rashi), and because she prophesied that her mother would give birth to the savior of Israel.

After describing Pharaoh’s decree and the midwives’ refusal to obey it, the Torah relates (Ex. 2:1), “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi.” The Sages (Sotah 12a; Ex. Rabbah 1:13) taught that this refers to Amram re-marrying Yocheved, and that the otherwise superfluous word “went” refers to the fact that in doing so, Amram went according to the advice of his daughter Miriam. The details of the story are as follows.

Because of the decree to throw all male children into the Nile, Amram, who was the leader of the generation, decided it was futile to have more children, and so he divorced his wife; with the other men following his example. Miriam criticized her father, saying, “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s: His is only against boys, yours is also against girls; his is only in this world, yours applies also to the next; his might not be executed, yours offers no chance”. Amram accepted her rebuke and remarried his wife; the other men following suit. When Amram remarried Yocheved he seated her on a bridal throne, while Miriam and Aaron danced before her as the ministering angels portended the birth of Moses by singing, “The mother of children shall rejoice” (Ps. 113:9).

Miriam’s wise counsel as a child not only caused all of Israel to remarry and defy the decree by having children. According to our sources (Sotah 12b, 13a; Ex. Rabbah 1:22), even at that young age she was also a prophet. After Miriam convinced Amram to re-marry Yocheved she prophesied, “My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel”. Thus, the Torah states about Yocheved (Ex. 2:2), “The woman conceived and bore a son”. When Moshe was born, the house became full of light and Amram kissed Miriam on her forehead and said, “My daughter your prophecy has been fulfilled” (Sotah 13a; Ex. Rabbah 1:22).

Moshe was born prematurely, such that Yocheved was able to hide him from the Egyptians who kept record of when each woman was due in order to seize her child (Ex. Rabbah 1:20). Thus the Torah states, “When she saw that he was well, she hid him for three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she took a reed basket...placed the child into it, and put it into the marsh at the Nile’s edge” (Ex. 2:2-3). Her parents then exclaimed, “Miriam, what will become of your prophecy!” For this reason the verse states (2:4), “His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him” (Sotah 13a; Ex. Rabbah 1:22). Thus, when she saw the daughter of Pharaoh remove Moses from the water, it was Miriam who saved his life: “His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and call for you a wet-nurse from the Hebrew women so that she will nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go!’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother” (2:7-8).

Since Moses was born on the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, this event, which took place three months after his birth, was on the 6th day of Sivan, the date in the future on which G-d would give the Torah to Moses at Sinai. This means that Miriam saved the life of Moses, who was destined to receive the Torah, on the very day that G‐d appointed to give it!

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