After the dramatic rescue of the Children of Israel at Sea of Reeds, Moses leads the first in the first recorded praise, or “shirah,” of God (Exodus Chapter 15:1-19).
But after this shirah, the Torah informs us a second shirah led by Miriam:
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (Exodus Chapter 15 20-21)
These two short verses raise three key questions:
- Why does Miriam need her own shirah?
- Why is Miriam referred to as a prophet in this verse when she does not seem to be giving a prophecy?
- Lastly, why is she referred to as only Aaron’s sister and there is no mention of Moses?
The Talmud in Megillah 14a answers the last question by explaining that Miriam prophesied that her mother would have a child who would save the Jewish people and that prophecy happened prior to Moses’ birth when she was only Aaron’s sister. Where did this prophecy take place? Part of it happened on the banks the Nile River when Miriam stood to insure that Moses would be saved from the water (Exodus Chapter 2:1-6). (Miriam is not mentioned by name here but the commentators explain that the sister referred to in these verses is Miriam.)
Miriam was a prophetess, as it is written explicitly: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand” (Exodus 15:20). The Gemara asks: Was she the sister only of Aaron, and not the sister of Moses? Why does the verse mention only one of her brothers? Rav Naḥman said that Rav said: For she prophesied when she was the sister of Aaron,i.e., she prophesied since her youth, even before Moses was born, and she would say: My mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people to salvation. And at the time when Moses was born the entire house was filled with light, and her father stood and kissed her on the head, and said to her: My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled. But once Moses was cast into the river, her father arose and rapped her on the head, saying to her: My daughter, where is your prophecy now, as it looked as though the young Moses would soon meet his end. This is the meaning of that which is written with regard to Miriam’s watching Moses in the river: “And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him” (Exodus 2:4), i.e., to know what would be with the end of her prophecy, as she had prophesied that her brother was destined to be the savior of the Jewish people.
Furthermore the Talmud in Sotah 12a adds to this story and relates that Amram divorced his wife after Pharaoh established his decree that all Jewish males born should be drowned. Miriam scolds her father that this approach is even harsher than Pharaoh’s because now no children will be brought into the world
A Sage teaches: Amram, the father of Moses, was the great man of his generation. Once he saw that the wicked Pharaoh said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (Exodus 1:22), he said: We are laboring for nothing by bringing children into the world to be killed. Therefore, he arose and divorced his wife. All others who saw this followed his example and arose and divorced their wives. His daughter, Miriam, said to him: Father, your decree is more harsh for the Jewish people than that of Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed both on the males and on the females. And now no children will be born. Additionally, Pharaoh decreed to kill them only in this world, but you decreed in this world and in the World-to-Come, as those not born will not enter the World-to-Come.
In both the text of Exodus Chapter 2:1-6 and the midrashim of the Talmud, we see that Miriam is a person who is always able to envision a better future. She never focuses on the hardship of the present and instead is able to dream of a better,redemptive future.
Miriam is part of the triumvirate of leaders of the Children of Israel in the desert along with her brothers with Moses and Aaron Each one is responsible for leading the people through the desert and their leadership is manifested by a physical gift to the Israelites in the desert: Moses, the manna, Aaron, the pillar of cloud, and Miriam, the well of water, as discussed in Hullin 92a.
Her essence is connected to water. Her name means bitter water which likely reflects the bitterness of the time when she was born during the enslavement of the Children of Israel (chapter 1:14):
וַיְמָרְר֨וּ אֶת־חַיֵּיהֶ֜ם בַּעֲבֹדָ֣ה קָשָׁ֗ה בְּחֹ֙מֶר֙ וּבִלְבֵנִ֔ים וּבְכָל־עֲבֹדָ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה אֵ֚ת כָּל־עֲבֹ֣דָתָ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־עָבְד֥וּ בָהֶ֖ם בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃
They [the Egyptians] embittered their [the Israelites’] lives, with the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.
When we first encounter Miriam, she protectively watches Moses from afar on the banks of the Nile (Chapter 2:4) and initiates for mother and child to be reunited in the house of Pharaoh (2:7-8).
Yet the first time Miriam is named is when she leads the women in their own shirah, praising God for saving the Israelites from the sea. Right after “Shirat Hayam,” the Song at the Sea, the next episode in the text describes how the Children of Israel are thirsty and cannot find water in the desert (Exodus Chapter 15: 22-24):
Moses led Israel away from the Red Sea, and they went out into the desert of Shur; they walked for three days in the desert but did not find water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink water from Marah because it was bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. The people complained against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?
This is similar to what occurs after Miriam’s death, when the Israelites again complain that they are thirsty.
The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon,and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. (Numbers Chapter 20:1-2)
The juxtaposition of Miriam’s death to the Children of Israel’s new thirst prompts the midrash to comment that once Miriam died, the well that had accompanied the Israelites in the desert disappeared and that is why they were thirsty again. They had lost the well that Miriam brought them and they were again thirsty.
What can this connection to water teach us? Why is Miriam always around water?
The Talmud in Bava Kama 82a brings an interesting interpretation of the verse in Exodus 15: 22
As it is taught in a baraita with regard to the verse: “And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water” (Exodus 15:22). Those who interpret verses metaphorically said that water here is referring to nothing other than Torah, as it is stated metaphorically, concerning those who desire wisdom: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water” (Isaiah 55:1).
This explains that the Children of Israel were not literally thirsty, but instead were thirsty for Torah because water is a symbol for Torah. Just as a person needs water to live so too they need Torah to love. Using the Transitive Theory then, we deduce that if Miriam’s physical manifestation is water and water symbolizes Torah then Miriam = Torah.
What is Torat Miriam? How does Miriam distinguish herself as a leader?
Miriam is able to see beyond the bitterness of her time and knows that there is always salvation in the future. Since she prophesied that her future brother would save the Jewish people she must deliver her own Shirah that she witnessed the fulfillment of that prophecy and she is only named as a prophet once the prophecy comes true. Fresh water is constantly in movement and renews itself – a rebirth.
This is what the Talmud in Megillah and Sotah recognizes Miriam’s ability to see beyond the present and know with full conviction that the future will always be better. She tells her parents to remarry because she is able to see (in fact, prophesize) that there is a future and we are obligated to act with hope. What is more hopeful than marriage and having a child for the future?
This is why Miriam delivers her own shirah — she knew God would always save the people.
After the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the status of water changes for the Children of Israel. Water, which had caused so much suffering in Egypt with Pharaoh’s decree to drown all of the first-born sons, now saves the Israelites from their enemies.
But Miriam knew all along, when she stood overlooking the water of the Nile, that water always had the potential to save. Those very waters of Nile saved her brother Moses, who then became the savior, leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Whatever seems hopeless can always be hopeful.
And this is why Miriam is represented by water. She was able to turn the bitterness of the circumstance of her life and constantly look towards the future and always find new opportunity.
It is also why the Torah is symbolized by water. The Torah is not a cynical way of life it should instill hope in its adherents who by observing Torah create a society based on justice, righteousness, and kindness (tzedek, mishpat, and chesed).