Our parsha begins and ends with shattered hopes. In between, we are introduced to a leader who gives us the tools to cope, by modelling the powerful chutzpa of “showing up”.
The book of Shemot begins with the land that had been so hospitable to Jacob’s children, a place that they had been able to “increase and become more and more powerful” suddenly becoming hell on earth. What had seemed to be a blessing was transformed in the Egyptian’s eyes into a threat- “the Jewish nation is greater and more powerful than us”, and as a result, the Egyptians are determined to make the lives of the Jewish people more and more bitter.
After untold years of oppression, hope springs forth once again, in the figure of a redeemer who suddenly appears on the scene with news of imminent salvation. And- “the people believe him” (Shemot 4:31). It seems as if their troubles are nearly over, that their oppression will cease, that they will soon return to a “land flowing with milk and honey”, to paradise. But then, again, the world turns upside down. What seemed like the first steps towards redemption become a pathway to even greater oppression. Moshe cries out to God in anger and frustration: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, it has hurt this nation, and You did not save them!”
How is one meant to respond to such a situation? When, again and again, everything sweet turns bitter, isn’t despair the reasonable choice? How can you hold onto hope despite it all?
The Midrash tells the story of another point of crisis that doesn’t appear explicitly in the text, and along the way, it promotes a seemingly minor character to a critical role:
Rav Amram said in Rav’s name: Because Miriam prophesied and said: My mother will give birth to a son who will save Israel. When Moshe was born, the whole house filled with light. Her father kissed her on the head and said: Daughter! Your prophecy has been fulfilled! And therefore the verse says: “And Miriam the prophetess, Aharon’s sister, took the timbrel in her hand” — Aharon’s sister and not Moshe’s sister? This hints that she made this prophecy when she was only Aharon’s sister, and Moshe had not been born. But when they cast him in the Nile, her mother hit her on the head and said: Daughter, where is your prophecy now? (Shemot Rabba 1:22)
Before the people of Israel meet their redeemer, his family hears of his destiny through young Miriam’s “prophecy”, which was reinforced by the appearance of a great light at his birth. “And she saw him that he was good” (Shemot 2:2)- despite all the darkness and the suffering, Miriam’s prophecy gives her mother new hope. But this hope, too, seems to be dashed by cruel reality when they need to cast Moshe into the Nile, just as Pharaoh had ordered. “Where is your prophecy now,” Miriam’s mother bitterly cries at the daughter who planted false hopes in her heart.
Indeed, if we follow the hidden back-story that the Midrash tells, this daughter had not only caused her family to believe that her brother would bring salvation, she had been the cause of his birth in the first place. A famous Midrash tells of how Miriam’s father, Amram, a communal leader, had come to the logical conclusion that, in the midst of such hell, it is better not to bring children into the world at all. Why give birth to false hopes? In the Midrash, Miriam “shows up against her father” and convinces him that his decree is even harsher than Pharaoh’s. The result is Moshe’s birth.
This trait of Miriam, the chutzpah of “showing up”, is attested to in the text as well, when she “stands afar to know what will happen” to her baby brother. The Midrash we quoted above adds- “to know what will come of her prophecy.” But this isn’t merely passive curiosity. Miriam doesn’t leave the fulfillment of her hopes to chance or fate or God. She situates herself so that, when the opportunity presents itself to make sure that her prophecy comes true, she can brazenly “show up” and dare to offer assistance to none other than Pharaoh’s daughter.
The name Miriam comes from the word mar, bitter, but also from the word meri¸ rebellion. Miriam is the great teacher of how to rebel against the bitterness, how to react to hopes that seem to have been shattered, to a paradise that has turned into hell on earth, to the dreams of a land flowing with milk and honey that suddenly flows with blood and tears.
She teaches us that while despair might lead to what seem to be reasonable, logical policies, redemption lies in a stubborn hope and a holy chutzpa to show up and be ready and willing to seize the unexpected opportunities the world presents, the light that suddenly breaks through the darkness.
*This post originally appeared in Hebrew as part of the special wartime parsha publication of Neemanei Torah Va’Avodah. The translation is the author’s.