Parsha of the Week

Miriam’s a leader, as are Jewish women today


Aheteronym in the Torah appears in three contexts which have too many parallels to be ignored. The prophetess Miriam (M-R-Y-M) appears on the scene to sing about the splitting of the sea, and then we are immediately told that the people arrived in Marah to find that “Marim Hem” — the water (or, according to some, the people) were bitter. The Hebrew for bitter appears here as M-R-Y-M, spelled the same as “Miriam.”

If it was people who were bitter, one wonders if the water was really bitter, or if it was only perceived as bitter until Moshe put the stick in it.

Elsewhere in the Torah, in the chapter on sotah, the water-solution the accused adulteress is given to drink is called “Mei HaMarim (M-R-Y-M) Ha’Meor’r’im,” sometimes called the “bitter waters.” (Bamidbar 5:18)

Finally, shortly after the death of Miriam (Bamidbar 20:1), when the people complain about lack of water, Moshe chastises them saying, “Shimu na HaMarim (M-R-Y-M)” — listen, you rebels!

Miriam dances in celebration over a miracle with water, there is bitterness over water (twice), and people are rebels over lack of water. All these episodes present the M-R-Y-M heteronym in different forms.


Is Miriam meant to be a representative of bitterness? Is there a tinge of rebelliousness in her? What is Miriam’s connection to water? Why is the sotah water called bitter, when perhaps the second adjective for the water — meor’r’im (revealing) is more important? Why do the people seem (at least in Moshe’s eyes) to be rebels when asking for water in Bamidbar, when they are clearly not rebels when they arrive in Marah and find nothing to drink? Is there a connection between bitterness, rebelliousness, water and Miriam; do they share a latent commonality?

Miriam is referred to as achot Aharon (the sister of Aharon) when she leads the women in dancing after the splitting of the sea (15:20). Rashi et al suggests she was “Miriam the prophetess” when she was still only Aharon’s sister, because she prophesied about the birth of her brother who would become the Deliverer. On the other hand, the Midrash Aggadah (15:20) says she was a prophetess until Moshe was born, at which point the power of prophesy was taken from her and bestowed upon Moshe.

Was she jealous over his success?

Perhaps here is the source of our connection. What does losing prophesy do to one’s personality? It could certainly make Miriam bitter. And, for all the women who joined Miriam in her dance, not seeing her as the leader Moshe is may have also made them bitter (and legitimately so).

Did Miriam’s bitterness towards Moshe ever come through? The Midrash is very critical of Miriam’s speaking of Moshe’s marital relations when she spoke ill of him in Bamidbar 12.

The sotah is accused of being rebellious; she may be bitter because she feels squelched by her husband and feels no sense of self, no sense of freedom, no sense of trust. Her husband is so jealous of her, so untrusting, that he does not let go of the strings to allow her personality to shine; certainly she is bitter.

And even if she is innocent, we ought to consider how the commitment of marriage – the public declaration that one am dedicated to one person and not available to others – changes how one relates to members of the other gender; one’s personality must still shine through, but in different ways. Those who think that marriage suppresses them (though marriage isn’t the culprit, abusive spouses are) have not figured out how to balance the responsibilities of marriage with appropriate social engagement with others.

Bitterness only brings people down and prevents them from moving on with life. Did a collective bitterness prevent people from seeing sweet water in Marah? Did the death of the 40-year female leader, leaving no female heir to her position cause bitterness and a rebellion over the symbol Miriam represented? (See Taanit 9a for Miriam’s connection to the well).

Articles have been written and television program produced about women “freeing themselves” from the “shackles” of Orthodoxy, and then there are the regular bloggers who find Judaism’s every purported fault.

Nothing is perfect. But instead of being bitter about rabbis and halakha and beit din and tefillin and mikveh and gets and singing, perhaps we can tap into the amazing creativity and innovation that has broadened the playing field.

There are Orthodox women who serve as halakhic advisers, the mikveh in many communities is comprised of an incredible sisterhood, the pre-nuptial agreement and the post-nuptial agreement have saved many a heartache over the deliverance of gittin, and there are a good number of talented women who perform in public as actors, dancers, musicians and singers, without compromising their faith and commitment to our halakhic system.

Miriam is an incredible heroine in the Torah. Her concern for her people when she was only a child, for her brother when he was a baby, for the women she led at the Sea, and in whatever else she did makes her a model for all time. But she was also human.

Whether it’s the subtlety of being called “Aharon’s sister,” or her lashon hara episode about Moshe, there was something lying beneath the surface. Did she ever move past it? I think she did. I think her getting tzaraat taught her an important lesson. And the fact that both her brothers prayed for her indicates a filial relationship that never waned through thick and thin.

Miriam the prophetess proves that there can be a very prominent place for women in Judaism — and the women I have encountered who put their hearts into the system and become the most educated about it (flaws it has and all!) have found the life to be overwhelmingly a good one.