Translation by Yehoshua Siskin
Lately all sorts of quotations and headlines have been publicized regarding “women in Judaism”. So let’s go to the source, to the Torah portion of the week, in which one of the greatest women in Jewish history, Miriam the prophetess, passes away: “And Miriam died there and was buried there”.
Let’s try to summarize: Miriam put her life at risk in order to deliver Hebrew babies in Egypt. The Torah says that she had “fear of God”. Despite Pharaoh’s decree that every Hebrew baby boy would be drowned, Miriam persisted in her values in the face of a threatening regime. Rashi describes how she would calm and placate the children that were born and was able to provide them with a pleasant childhood in Egypt, with special attention to their earliest years of education.
Afterwards Miriam stood on the banks of the Nile and placed her little brother protectively in a waterproof basket. In those historic moments she was not just a babysitter but a guarantor that the boat named “the nation of Israel” would sail in the right direction.
Later, during the Exodus after crossing the Red Sea, Miriam would lead the women in the “Song of the Sea” with her tambourine, an item that plays a starring role in kindergarten re-enactments until today. Our commentators explain that this was Miriam’s educational technique throughout her life: to pass along important messages by means of personal example – through celebration, song, and dance – and she succeeded. She educated a generation of women who rose to a higher spiritual level than the men. Miriam even taught us a lesson in the perils of lashon hara when she was afflicted with tzara’at, a leprosy-like condition, after she spoke disparagingly of Moshe Rabbeinu. And now in this week’s parasha, a moment after she passes away, the Torah describes how the people are suddenly stricken with thirst. This is a physical thirst but also a spiritual thirst, a thirst for Miriam’s calming, enlightening, and comforting presence.
To the memory of Miriam, who reminds us of the truth about Jewish women.