The Heroine Ahead of the Hero
Who do we praise and recognize when things go really well? The CEO, the project manager, perhaps the team? There is a delightful anecdote told about a janitor who worked at NASA, appropriate for this week as we celebrate Israel Space Week with the 18th Ilan Ramon International Space Conference in Israel. He was asked by a group visiting what his job is. Without hesitation he proudly declares; “My job is to get people to the moon.”
Whilst Moshe is very much (probably against his will) in the limelight this week, as he executes the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, his sister Miriam is clearly among the equally sung and singing heroines.
Her famous appearance in this week’s portion of Beshalach, is captivating,15:20:
וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums.
The details of her biography are striking, – a prophetess and the sister of Aaron. Rashi brings a segment of the lengthy and fascinating passage in the tractate of Sotah 12a also quoted in Tractate Megillah 14a to address this puzzling description;
Was Miriam the sister only of Aaron, and not the sister of Moses? Rav Naḥman said that Rav said: For she prophesied when she was the sister of Aaron, her prophecy occurred when she was young, before Moses was born, where she foresaw that her mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people to salvation…
If that was the moment of her prophecy, why did she not earn the title then earlier in the text of the Book of Shemot? Furthermore, why do the Rabbis choose to almost ignore the context in which Miriam is in fact given that distinction? The audacious act of packing a tambourine together with her matzot is surely the supreme act of prophecy too. Surely that is what the text itself is insinuating by calling her thus in this extraordinary setting?
We might suggest that there is no contradiction between identifying the prophecy of the birth of Moshe and the ultimate salvation that inspired the songs of praise. Prophecy is not only about seeing the future but also discerning if not celebrating the consequences.