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Drash Miriam's Voice

Drash, By Franca Brilliant, April 2011

With Chronology and Sources

My name is Miriam and this is my story.  I know that I will be overshadowed by Moses, the one who freed the slaves, the man of the mountain, the one who saw the back of God.  My younger brother.  It is because I challenged him that I sit here, stricken by an affliction that keeps me from my people and my place.  I pass the time remembering and telling my tale to anyone who will listen.  Perhaps my visitors will preserve some parts of my story as I tell it and my voice will continue to be heard.  And so I am telling this tale to you. 

Mar yam, bitter waters.  What a name for a child!

From my birth I was marked for a bitter life, a life of struggle. I was a prophet, the first of our poor downtrodden people to be called by that name.   And a prophet is never honored in her own country.  Sometimes a prophet is even mocked by god. 

When did it begin?  I was born into harsh slavery in the land of the Pharaohs, thrust into a life eked out between too much hard labor, too little food, and the wailing of babies and small children.  .After I was weaned, when I was old enough to walk and to speak and to keep quiet when needed, I began to help my mother bring Hebrew babies into the world.  As we birthed these babies, I could see shadow or light surrounding each, and could tell by this sign that some were blessed and some were cursed right from their first cry.  I didn't speak about this to anyone, but I think my mother knew. Sometimes, when the baby arrived under a shadow, she would look at me with a deep sorrow as if she too realized the baby was destined for misfortune and grief.

Then, adding to our misery, Pharaoh decreed that all boys born to the Hebrews would be put to death, to stop us from becoming a threat to our cruel overseers.  My father Amram, a gentle man who was already beaten down by his life as a slave, gave up hope.  "I will not give Pharaoh my sons to kill.  I would rather have no possibility of sons." And without another word, he went to the elders and divorced my mother and left our house.  My mother wept, for her lost marriage bed and our broken future, for there would be no males to carry on our line.  On the seventh day of my father's departure, I had a dream.  I dreamed of two men, one whose face shone with a radiance that was both terrifying and wondrous, and one who also shone, but with a lesser light that flickered like an oil lamp in a windy house. I knew that these were my brothers and that they had to be born to fulfill the prophesy of liberation that God made to our fathers.  The next morning I slipped out of our hut before dawn and found my father.  I told him that he had to find the courage to resume his marriage and to give my mother more children.  I told him that he would father the one who would deliver our people and that he could not deny all Israel this hope.  He wept when I told him he had no choice.  He followed me to our house and spoke to my mother Jochebed, and he and my mother went before the elders three days later to marry again. 

Nine months passed and my mother gave birth to my brother Aaron. I attended my mother for the birth of both of my brothers, both for my skill and because the birth had to be hidden from the Egyptian spies among us.  The birth of the first was fast and easy.  The child came out with no cries and yet, I was sad when I looked at him.  For there above him, the baby Aaron, was the bluish light that flickered as if blown by the wind.  I felt a rush of love for this red-faced newborn. I wondered if we shared the same uncertain blessing.    

Moses's birth was hard.  My mother labored for many hours, and the baby was thin and small, but with a loud cry that could be heard by all the houses in our compound.  You have heard many many times, for I have told it over and over myself, of how we hid Moses in a cradle of reeds in the river, and how I helped the Pharaoh's daughter choose our own mother as a nursemaid.  I did not see the light I had dreamed over Moses when he was born, and my mother did not bear any more children.  Was he the one?  I held to my belief that he was, for I knew that Aaron was weak and did not have the pure heart and iron purpose that would be required. 

And we toiled on, our work increasing, the lash of the Pharaoh's foreman searing the backs of our men, the poverty of our food weakening our bodies as our dim lives weakened our spirits, so that my skills as a healer were constantly needed.  And there was more.  Our men, humiliated day after day, deprived of normal paths to be strong and proud, beat their women and children. Too many times I was called to repair broken bones, soothe bruises or clean wounds.  And each time I spoke to the men and the women in the house.  To the men I delivered a warning about the damage their fists were doing to themselves and to our people.  I spoke sternly, but with compassion, and in many houses the violence stopped.  To the women I brought a message of strength and anger. They needed the anger, as did I.  How could we not feel anger-towards the men who beat them and the Egyptians who oppressed them, yes, but also towards our God, who had abandoned us.  Where was our deliverance?      

The years went by and I grew to be a young woman.  My parents wanted me to take a husband, and there were a few young men whose families inquired after me, but I refused them.  I was not willing to have any man tell me what to do, much less the scrawny saplings who came to ask for me.  I was content in my role as a healer, a counselor and a comforter to women.  And from time to time, most often with no warning, I would have a sense-a vision, a voice, a dream-of things to come and of what I needed to say to those around me. 

Aaron and I grew very close.  I more mannish and he more womanish than most, we drew strength and inspiration from each other.  He had become a respected man, a clever talker who knew how to pour oil on rough tempers, bring enemies to the table, and talk himself out of a beating.  He valued my opinion and brought me into the council of elders. Those men always assumed that my wisdom came from my visions but I tell you that I knew a few things on my own.

I never stopped thinking about Moses, and after he was weaned and we saw no more of him, I kept track of his years, and waited.  Until the day I heard about the Egyptian who had killed a foreman in defense of a Hebrew slave.  The story spread like a fire through dry reeds.  No one had ever heard or seen such a thing-an Egyptian protecting a slave!  Nor did anyone know who the Egyptian lord was, for he was clearly a lord, but Aaron and I guessed.  We spent many nights talking about our hopes for our brother to return. 

One night, after several seasons had passed and the rumors about the Egyptian prince had almost died out, I again dreamed of two men.  One was Aaron and the other I could be no one else but Moses.  In my dream I felt the power of his presence again. I awoke and lay staring into the night, frightened and exhilarated. I was sure that Moses was coming soon.

A few days later, Moses walked out of the desert and asked Aaron for his help.  He was not the man I had imagined.  He was tall and pleasing to the eye, but he seemed weak in both body and spirit.  His years in the palace had left their mark-he held his head stiffly, looking above the head of whomever was addressing him, and spoke softly, with the lisp that was favored among the Egyptian princes.  He had no memory of me, and after our first formal greeting in our parents' hut, he left me alone.  There was much I could have taught him about our people. I understood them as Aaron did not.  I knew the bitterness and weakness that afflicted them and that later became so disastrous during the years in the desert.  But he did not ask.  He did not seek me out. 

You know how God finally heard our pleas and unleashed his wrath on the Egyptians.  It was a terrible thing to behold.  Even though our people were spared, they were overcome with fear of this vengeful God.   As I made my rounds among the women, I spoke to them, calming their fears, telling them that the birth of a nation, like the birth of a child, exacts a price. I reminded them of the bravery they had displayed through the long nightmare of slavery.  I knew that if   the women were strong, they would rally their husbands and children for the long road ahead. The women listened to me and I could see a renewed resolve in the nod of their heads and their murmured agreement.           

 Moses' strength and confidence grew as Pharaoh wavered and the punishments of the Egyptians increased.  He seldom spoke to me as he spent most of his time with Aaron and the elders.  I saw less of Aaron too.  I watched from afar as the men conferred.  Only with the approach of the great and horrible tenth plague did Moses call on me.  "God has told me that he will bring a devastation upon Pharaoh and all of Egypt that they will not endure; they will let us go forth.  We must be ready to go. When Pharaoh gives way, we will have to leave before the next sun rises. The women listen to you. Will you make sure they are prepared."  I simply nodded.  And then I looked directly at Moses.  "Moses, you are a changed man.  The Prince of Egypt is gone. He has been replaced by the redeemer of Israel. You will lead us out of Egypt to the promised land." For a moment he was surprised. Then he smiled. "Thank you Miriam."  For the first time, he recognized that I was truly his sister. 

I will not speak of the plague itself and the death-bearing spirit that visited the land of Egypt.  As we marched out of Egypt, we were led by a pillar of cloud, a sign from God to his people that his presence would be with us day and night to guide us to freedom.  As we walked, a wordless song issued from the cloud, as if a chorus of hundreds were singing us out of Egypt.  It lifted our hearts and gave us hope as we fled through the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh's army at our heels. When we got to the other side, the song swelled until it filled the air and suddenly, we, the women, felt the words on our tongues.  As one, we gathered up our tambourines and drums and sang our jubilation, with great dancing and playing.  The song was in me and around me and it was as if I were one with the singers and the song.  I will never again experience that wonder. 

I do not know what Moses and the men thought when they saw the women thus. I do not believe that they ever accepted that God's spirit could come through us. Nothing could compare to that, and indeed, my strength and my pride were greatly diminished during our wandering in the wilderness.  It was if I had been used and left shriveled and empty, like a drained wineskin.

If we thought we would live off the fat of the land when we left Egypt and slavery behind us, we were mistaken.  Life was hard and chaotic, and we were unprepared.  There were many times even I thought longingly of the rhythm and certainty of our days in Egypt.   

 While we were still In Egypt, Moses had discovered that Aaron had knowledge and skills he lacked and he continued to lean on Aaron for advice and support in the desert. I worried about his reliance on Aaron.  I heard the people's muttering long before they were willing to announce their complaints in the public gathering places and I knew that their discontent would lead to trouble.  I would tell Aaron of the rumors I heard, hoping that he would warn Moses, but I don't think he wanted Moses to know. 

And then we arrived at the sacred mountain.  Even the air was different in that place-it made my skin tingle, as if I were bathing in a cool refreshing spring.  My spirits lifted and my heart regained its courage.  There was a current of excitement running all the through the camp.  Everyone, from the young children playing in the dust to the wrinkled elders sitting by the fires, knew that a great moment was coming.

Then Moses came down from the mountain and told us to get ready for God.  He instructed us  that during our preparations no man should get near a woman.  The elders in their wisdom interpreted that to mean that women should be left in the camp and not brought to the foot of the mountain.  I felt such rage that day.  To see Moses anointed by God and to be left behind. As if I had not earned a place at the foot of the mountain, or even together with Moses and Aaron up on the mountainside.   I held my tongue, but I was burning inside.    

You know the disaster that followed.  Moses went up the mountain again, and the people, so strong in their fervor and loyalty to God just days earlier, faltered and fell.  They saw the fire on the mountain and thought the Lord had consumed Moses.  As their fear grew, I tried to avert the danger I saw coming.  I gathered the women and spoke to them:  "You know that I have the gift of sight and I tell you that Moses will return.  Our God did not bring us this far to abandon us.  There is a great mystery taking place on the mountain, but its meaning will be revealed to us in time.  Let us wait a full moon here.  At the end of that time we will meet again."  Most of the women agreed, reluctantly, that they would stay in the camp and wait faithfully.  I went to Aaron and told him what had happened. 

"Aaron, I hear rumors about Moses deserting us, or worse, being destroyed by God on the mountain.  I have spoken with dozens of women who tell me their men are very restless. I see the women whispering among themselves and looking with wide eyes at the mountain…. "  Aaron cut me off.  'Miriam, you have always been the messenger of doom and despair.  Moses is on the mountain and we are here below.  Nothing will happen while we wait.  If the women are nervous, lend them some of your confidence. Go back and speak to them." I pressed Aaron because I wanted him to understand what I saw.  As I spoke to him, I realized that he was very uneasy.  He would not look at me and finally, to quiet me, he said "If it will reassure you, I will gather the elders and speak with them."

But this time, Aaron, the man with the golden tongue, was not able to work his magic.  Instead he succumbed to the will of those around him.  I felt such deep despair when I heard that my own brother had led the people in worship to an idol.  This was the long shadow of slavery and Egypt bearing down on my people, and I knew that the Lord and Moses would not be forgiving.   I was sure Moses would come down off the mountain and punishment would follow his return.

Somehow we survived the slaughter and the plague that the Lord unleashed on us.  I stayed in my tent, mute, as my clan went from household to household, killing the men who had betrayed the Lord.  The plague followed, wiping out the rest of their families. 

None of us were the same after the events at the holy mountain.  Aaron suffered further tragedy, when his sons were burned for daring to presume they could approach the Lord.  He continued as the high priest, but his spirit was broken by the shame he felt for himself, his sons and the people he had led astray.  The bitterness of the experience at the foot of the mountain ate away at my soul and I could only think of the things I had been denied.  I grew old.  My eyesight dimmed , my hands lost their strength, my will withered, and I withdrew to my tent, keeping to myself and saying little.  Moses was the most transformed.  His encounter with God on the mountain erased any remaining doubt about what he was meant to do.  He shone with a radiance that made it difficult to see him and impossible to look at him for more than a few moments.  Everything about the way he moved and spoke reflected the role that God had called on him to play.   This was the Moses of my dream.  The man marked as our redeemer, our leader, and our teacher since before he was born. How could I compare myself with him?

I held that knowledge and yet I denied it. 

I do not know how I could have been so foolish as to challenge him.  The story is that Aaron and I raised our voices against him, but that is not true.  I take no pride in saying that this time I led Aaron astray. 

It began with Tzipporah, Moses' wife.  Moses brought her to the camp and then left her to take care of herself, the children and their compound.  She was a Cushite woman, used to the ways of her people, and did not know our customs.  I heard many tales from gossiping women about her strange habits and her ignorance of how things worked in the camp.  I blamed Moses for choosing a foreigner for a wife and for not teaching her the right way to run a household.  One day she let her goats go into someone else's compound where they found the pots containing a stew for the evening meal. They ate every last bit. The next day there were many angry accusations flying back and forth . To soothe tempers I told the family that I would talk to Moses about his Cushite wife.  I convinced Aaron to come with me. 

Once we stood in front of Moses and I opened my mouth, other words came flying out.  "Why, Why, Why?  Why were we passed over?  Why did the Lord pick you?  I was there first!  I prophesied your arrival, ensured that you were born and protected you from the crocodiles of the Nile.   I suffered through slavery and helped our people endure Pharaoh's oppression while you placed in the palace with his sons!  I led the sacred song after we escaped the Egyptians soldiers.   God has spoken to me too.  Who gave you all the glory?"   I screamed at Moses for what seemed like a very long time.  Moses was astounded; Aaron looked devastated. 

And then we heard the Lord's voice.  It came from the earth and sky and reverberated with the deep rumble of thunder and the roar of the desert wind.  I do not remember what the Lord said.  But the voice made me feel as useless as dust, as if the life were being sucked out of me.  When the terrifying rumbling ended, my skin was as white and scaly as a corpse.  Aaron was half crazed, babbling and asking Moses for help.  Moses faced that terrible voice and asked the Lord  to forgive and heal me.  In that moment, I was overcome with shame and despair at the envy I had nurtured through the years.  Moses shared our blood, but he belonged to the Lord's household, not ours.   Who else could speak to the Lord thus and gain a favorable response?    Who else would show the compassion he displayed now to me, who had so openly defied him?  Who else could lead the squabbling, weak, sinning children of Israel from slavery to freedom, from the desert to the promised land.  He was the one God had chosen."   I fled the camp.  I found the place where the impure and the blemished live and collapsed at the front of the first tent I came to.

So here I am.  The days since my punishment have given me some peace.  I am not required to work, so I sit quietly and think about the terrors and wonders I have seen.  I am no longer so proud, but I claim a part in the song that is our story.  I have carried out God's vision.  Without me, Moses would not have been born.  I have done my own wrestling with God and I understand that there are mysteries in this world that are beyond my grasp. 

I have visitors from time to time.  Those in the camp of impurity come to see me out of sympathy, and sometimes, to ask my counsel.  Sometimes I get a visitor who doesn't seem to be one of the impure.  My sight is bad, so I don't know who all my visitors are and I don't ask.    

But I know who you are.  I have known since you crossed my threshold, Did you forget that I can see things that others can not? 

You are my brother Moses.  You have come to end my exile and bring me home to my people.  I will follow you.

Chronology

Ex 7, Aaron is named prophet

Flight

Sea of Reeds

Songs

Food :  Quail and Manna-15th day of second month of exodus

Rephidim-water from rock, fight with Amalek  --reconcile this with legend of Miriam's well?

Jethro-Council of Elders, Zipporah comes to Moses

Third new moon-Sinai,  "do not go near a woman", Moses ascends the mountain with Aaron, Aaron's sons, and the elders. 

Golden Calf-after Moses on the mtn for 40 days and 40 nights  "Aaron had let the people get out of control," Levites slaughter those involved.  Plague from God.

(Ex. 33  I will no longer go in your midst, since you are a stiff necked people, cloud at tent of meeting, Moses sees back of God.

Second set of tablets-Moses' face radiant, wears veil when he isn't speaking with God

Cloud over the tent of meeting, Lord's presence in the Tabernacle, cloud by day and fire by night.

Leviticus 10, Nadab and Abihu. 

20th day of second month of second year, Israelites set out from Sinai

Three days later, people complain and are set a fire from the Lord.  Then they complain about the manna. 

Moses and council of elders are visited by the spirit of God.  Eldad and Medad stay in camp but also get spirit. 

Quail and plague

Numbers 12.  Hzaeroth, Miriam and Moses

Seven days of exile, move to Paran

Scouts go to Canaan

Not sure where to go next:

Miriam's well

The Golden Calf

Death of Aaron's sons

Challenge to Moses

Punishment and Reconciliation

Sources

Sources for midrashot and interpretations of Miriam

*books available in the TI library

The Five Books of Miriam, A Women's Commentary on the Torah, Ellen Frankel, Ph.D   (Grosset/Putnam, 1996)-a modern feminist commentary, featuring several biblical heroines commenting on their own and other biblical stories

Biblical Women Unbound , Norma Rosen (Jewish Publication Society, 1996)

Moses, Man of the Mountain , Zora Neale Hurston ( University of Illinois Press, 1984) - Zora Neale Hurston's reimagining of Moses' life

A Feminist Companion to Exodus - Deuteronomy, Athalya Brenner,editor (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994)-Full of scholarly, interesting and provocative articlles

Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible, Alice Ogden Bellis, (Westminster/John Knox in l994)

All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet and the Women of Exodus ,Rebecca Schwartz, eitor (Rikudei Miriam Press, 2001)

"Miriam in Numbers 12,"  Denise Pimpinella, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, Villanova University, available to download at http://concept.journals.villanova.edu/article/download/274/237

Legends of the Jews , Louis Ginsberg, translated from  the German by Henrietta Szold and Paul Radin (Jewish Publication Society, 2003)  --Originally published in 1909, this is the classic and exhaustive collection of the Haggada, the stories and traditions surrounding the bible, complete with detailed footnotes on original sources.  It is available to download here:  http://philologos.org/__eb-lotj/