“On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the Land of Egypt…they encamped in front of Mt. Sinai, and Miriam went up to God. …Miriam came down from the mountain to the People and warned them to stay pure…And she told them: ‘Be ready for the third day: and be certain that all, women, men, and children, stand together before the LORD.’ On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a great cloud over the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.”
–Exodus 18-19 (adapted)
After my baby brother Moses—he’s so delicate!—got a tummyache, poor fellow, from eating spoiled manna, he took to his bed. Realizing he was “too ill” (his own words) to make the trek up Mt. Sinai, he sent Joshua to me to tell me I would have to take his place. Aaron was overburdened with planning the Mishkan, the Wilderness Sanctuary, and Joshua was far too young and immature. I must be frank: Joshua and I have never gotten along. He’s too full of himself to acknowledge that a mere woman (me) could possibly be his equal in leadership and prophecy, let alone his superior.
Well, never mind that: the important thing was that my brother Moses, that prophetic paragon, would be unable to participate in the most awe-inspiring theophany to ever occur in the nascent history of Israel.
Imagine, that our people, from the mightiest chieftain to the humblest serving-maid, were to witness God’s descent upon Mt. Sinai! Besides, thanks to a bit of underdone manna, it fell to me, eldest of our family, and leader of the women, to ascend Sinai, speak with God, and deliver the Torah to the people.
To purify myself, I had immersed in a desert pool back in Rephidim, but Serach bat Asher, our holiest and eldest Women’s Teacher, instructed me to seek out a nearby stream and repeat the ritual. Serach was a marvel—she had known Father Joseph, Grand Vizier to Pharaoh Seti I, in her youth. She was our last living link to the pre-slavery period, and many considered her an oracle; all knew her to be exceptionally pious.
“Why do you suppose that God chose me, and not you, to climb Sinai and fetch the Torah, Mistress Serach?” I asked her.
“I cannot say,” she replied, “but perhaps your being of Rabbeinu Moses’s family had something to do with it. God has other tasks in store for me. All who live on this earth, regardless of duration and condition, eventually receive God’s plan for them.”
This was wisdom, indeed! However, I had no time to waste: clouds were gathering over the Mount, and it was time for me to ascend. I recalled my brother Moses’s last words after he gave me the charge to climb:
“Watch your step, Miriam—listen carefully to the words of the Holy One when He speaks Torah; you may be asked to repeat them. Oh, and under no circumstances should you take anything from Sinai back with you!”
He then turned over on his pallet, groaning and clutching his belly: I turned to leave, brushing up against my sister-in-law, Zipporah, whose duty it was to wait, hand-and-foot, on our suffering Jewish Prince. (His two mothers—the Egyptian Princess and our own Yocheved—had done fine work in making him both feeling superior to, yet dependent on, the women in his life. Poor Zipporah!) I stopped and embraced her; she had a hard life.
That all seemed so long ago! Now, I was climbing Sinai—though the rocky way upward was steep, my steps were light, and my spirits high. I had wrapped my head in my best hijab—the purple-and-red one: purple for the royal family to which I belonged, and red, the color of new life. Rocks scudded past me like feathers caught in a high wind; a bolt of lightning struck a small sapling not five cubits’ away from me. The thunder rolled. Still, I felt unafraid.
I knew that the God of my Father Amram would protect me, as well as all of my ancestors, all the way back to great-great-great-grandfather Levi, that mighty warrior. I kept my eyes half-closed, concerned about how to face the heavenly host. All around me was a riot of flying angels, thousands of them, mostly cherubim, with lion-bodies, eagle-heads and wings, and talons. Their sharpened beaks gaped, and flames flew from their wing-tips as they roared through the burdened, smoky air. The span between their wing-tips reached from one end of Sinai to the other.
I stepped over the last rock to the top of Sinai. It was then that I heard, not thunder or cherubs’-roar, but the first words from God Himself. He spoke, and I seemed to hear it in all the languages of earth. The cherubim stopped flying; they hovered in place, and the cloud cleared away in an instant, letting the late-afternoon sun shine through.
“What are you doing here, Miriam?”
“If it please You, Lord,” I replied, throwing back my hijab and standing bareheaded before God, “I am here in place of my brother your servant Moses, ready and prepared to receive Your Torah, Your incomparable gift to Your People.”
I heard a buzzing in my ear: “Foolish mortal—more foolish woman! Are you so vain as to presume that God will give you, a mere mortal, His holy Torah? Best retreat down the mountain, foolish little girl; vanish from God’s Presence, instantly! We angels can practice Torah and its mitzvote far better than you are able. It is the priceless treasure of the Lord, the most precious bequest kept within His treasury. Begone, Girl!
I slapped at my ear, as if swatting a mosquito, and the voice stopped.
“Angels!” God roared in a stentorian voice, “Leave my servant Miriam alone! She is carrying out multiple mitzvote: honoring her brother Moses my prophet, and conveying holy words to a holy people. And now, let us begin….”
I had to interrupt. “My Lord God, an it please you, I am here, not to honor my brother—he can stand on his own merits. I am here to serve Israel, in the best way I know how: by teaching Torah.”
The Voice was silent; perhaps He was thinking about what I had said. And then, I heard him again:
“Hm. Yes. Well, I see. Perhaps we can begin the Giving of Torah now,” said the Voice.
“As You wish, Lord,” I answered, pulling my hijab closer about my head. For some reason, it was starting to grow cold. I could not understand why, until I saw the cherubim flitting up to heaven, unable to bear the cold, since they were creatures of fire and air—“So their presence will not interfere with your concentration, Miriam,” I heard the Voice in my head.
“I am the LORD your GOD, Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” God began.
“A good beginning!” I cried, “since liberation will figure so strongly in human history. Let there be multiple deliverances, manifold exoduses from slavery to freedom!”
“You shall not make for yourselves graven images, to bow down to or serve,” came the Second Statement.
“Not only graven images, but possessions of all kinds!” I added, “People are far more valuable than things, no matter how precious.”
“For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting punishment for the sins of the fathers and grandfathers onto the children.”
“Come again, Lord God?” I interjected, “that doesn’t really seem fair. Does that mean I could possibly be held punishable for the sins of—oh, Rebecca or Rachel? Should I not be accountable for my sins only?”
“Let Me re-think that one, and get back to you,” came the Voice, “I will have to give that one some more thought. It seemed right and correct when I first conceived it….”
“…Which is why I deeply appreciate Your running it past me, before I deliver it to the People,” I answered, busily chipping away at my tablets.
“What are you tapping at, there, Miriam?” God asked, “I will deliver this first pair of tablets to you, all carved, polished, and ready to go. They will serve you until you cast them down….”
“Why should I cast them down?” I wondered.
“Oh, nothing—you will see,” came the Voice.
I shook my head, bewildered. And the Voice continued: “Remember the Sabbath-Day and keep it holy….”
It was going to be a long afternoon.