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Naomi Graetz

A Passover Triptych: Miriam’s Death and Yahrzeit

Saturday was Shabbat Hagadol, the special shabbat before Passover. According to my calendar it is also the day of Miriam’s death, i.e., her Yahrzeit. I have been writing about Miriam for more than twenty years and have identified with her in different ways, depending on who (and where) I was at the time. I often refer to the end of parshat be-ha-alotcha, where we read about Miriam and Aaron’s speaking up against Moses about the Cushite woman (Numbers 12).

MIRIAM’S YAHRZEIT

You might want to light a yahrzeit candle for Miriam, the “rebellious” one, who was the oldest of her siblings, who died and was buried at Kadesh (Numbers 20:1), according to one tradition on the 10th of Nissan (here).  Since the mid-eighties many people have included Miriam’s cup (filled with water, not wine) on the table, next to Elijah’s cup. This is because of the well that accompanied the people during their forty years in the desert. And when she died, the well dried up and the people complained to Moses (Numbers 20: 2-6). This year people are introducing many innovations to the Haggadah to recall what happened on October 7th and to add an extra chair at the table for the missing hostages who will not be celebrating Pesach this year with their families. People are adding to the Seder plates a yellow ribbon and there will be many additional readings which remind us of the uncertainty in which we find ourselves.

A PASSOVER TRIPTYCH

Returning to Miriam, one can easily understand the siblings’ anger and resentment at Moses’s grandstanding. In 1999, I wrote a poem about Miriam’s resentment of her fate as Moses’s sister, and then in 2001, I added two more poems to the first one to form a Triptych which I used for our Passover family Seders and which was later included in The Women’s Seder Sourcebook (2003) with explanations. I depicted Moses the Leader as Matzah, and Aaron the Priest as Pesach. There is an interesting midrash which depicts the three siblings as representing different things, with Miriam as Maror (bitterness):

THEN CAME AMALEK (Exodus 27: 8). It is written, I was not at ease, neither was I quiet, neither had I rest; but trouble came (Job 3:26). ‘I was not at ease’-on account of Babylon; ‘neither was I quiet’ ‘-on account of Persia; ‘neither had I rest’-on account of Greece; ‘but trouble came’-with Edom.

Another explanation: ‘I was not at ease’-on account of the first decree which Pharaoh decreed against me, as it says, and they made their lives bitter (Exodus 1:14). God raised up a deliverer for them-Miriam, whose name intimates the bitterness (מירור) of slavery. ‘Neither was I quiet’-on account of the second decree, If it be a son, then ye shall kill him (Exodus 1:16); God then raised up a redeemer-Aaron אהרון, whose name alludes to birth (הריון). ‘Neither had I rest’-on account of the third decree which [Pharaoh] decreed: Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river (Exodus 1:22); but God raised up a redeemer-Moses, whose name indicates his association with water, for it says, Because I drew him out of the water (Exodus 2: 10). ‘But trouble came’-this refers to Amalek (Exodus Rabbah 26:1).

In the Haggadah “Anavim Ba-Midbar“, published in 5538 (1778) Pesach corresponds to Moshe, Matzah to Aharon and Maror to Miriam. And there are also sources which have Pesach corresponding to Abraham, Matzah to Isaac and Maror to Jacob.

As you will see, I have reversed the order, putting Miriam first.

A PASSOVER TRIPTYCH

Rabban Gamliel said: whoever has not spoken of the following three matters on Passover has not fulfilled the obligation of the holiday: They are Pesach (the Paschal Lamb), Matzah and Maror (the Passover Haggadah).

My people! What wrong have I done you? What hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me. In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Micah 6:3-4).

MIRIAM THE BITTER “MAROR”

She stands apart.

One of three.

Separate, different,

Sister to a priest.

Midwife (they say)

To the Leader.

The waters broke.

With song and delicacy

She pulled HIM out

And sweet water

From hard rocks.

As a child I knew

Blood, fear

Endless crying–

He was in my power.

I gave my all.

My reward:

HE has turned God against me,

Whiteness of skin,

Shielded from sun and friends

With no one to listen

To my prophecy.

MOSES THE LEADER

“MATZAH”

Ill tempered, Hitter of  rocks, Breaker of tablets,  parter of Waves, wrecker of home-life.     He Gets his Way—no diplomat he.

Leprosy makes his point.  Pitiless Provider of plagues. He casts his rod and parts the reed Sea.

SHE stands by his side with her Timbrels and musical instruments.

Duet: Sing a song of sea, oh! Moment of glory, togetherness.

The waters broke.  SHE saved him And brought him sweet water from Hard rocks.

Home wrecker: jealousy—three Leaders—only one is chosen.

Abandon ship: women first (wife, Sister), then the brother.

From heavy tongue to eloquence: eyl na, refa na lah (Please God, Heal her). SHE puts music to his Words. They wait.

 

AARON THE PRIEST “PESACH”

Bowed down by sacrifice,    Bleating of  lambs, Mewing of cows, blood spewed.

Wash, blood, wash, blood, Wash…the heady rhythm of drums In background—prayer forgotten, Sons neglected.

Always a spokesman, never a Leader—except for one golden Moment. Sacrificial calf Transformed to idol. Heady stuff To be worshipped, chosen by People, never by God.

HE was on the mountain Dialoguing with God; SHE was Busy with song and healing.

The people needed someone, some Thing. He fashioned a golden Symbol; it was rejected—caused Chaos and death. His sons! Punishment for arrogance.

Impatience is a family trait

Pontifical remnants: Priests, Penitence, Prayer.  Sacrifice is Always accepted.

 

 

I wish you all a peaceful and meaningful Seder. Hopefully, you, your family (parents, siblings, children) and friends will not have too many arguments at the dinner table and I hope you can use my “gift” to enrich your Seder.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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