October 17, 2021 |


My daughter - Rinat Miryam - was born on Shabbat morning, February 7, 2004. That Shabbat, we happened to read Beshalac this week's portion -- which includes the the Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites after being saved from the Egyptians by the splitting of said sea. The week when it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the shabbat of song. Since my wife is already named Shira, we named our daughter Rinat, which means joyous song. That same day was also happened Tu Bishvat (the 15th of Sh'vat), a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar known as the Rosh Hashana of trees. Of course, the triple-whammy (Feb. 7, Shabbat Shira and Tu Bishvat) doesn't usually fall out on the same day, so Rinat argues (not unpersuasively) that she should be entitled to have three birthday celebrations, for each component of her birthday. This year, she would get to party Jan 15 (shabbat shira), Jan 20 (Tu Bishvat) and Feb 7. We have, after some protracted negotiations, settled on one.

The second part of her name is bdue to the prophetess Miryam, who also happens to play a major role this week. At the Song of the Sea, she leads the women in a kind of parallel song, as it says: "And Miriam answered [after] them: Sing out to Hashem, for he is the most glorious, He has cast down horse and chariot into the sea." (Sh'mot 15:21) The commentators are divided about how the women sang. Miryam and the women might have sung the same song as the men, either following them (Chazkuni) or responsively[1]. It is also possible that they sang a separate song, unique to the women. The answering nature of the song could mean that they responded to the men[2], to each other or that they went off on their own and had their own celebration with songs, drums and cymbals. In the reading of the Song of the Sea (shirat ha-yam) it is customary to use a special tune and - even though the main part of the song is over - that tune is used for Miryam's reprise as well.

I think that the moment following the splitting of the sea was momentous for Miryam in a personal way as well, a culmination of her experiences until then. The Torah never describes why Miryam was given her name, but we do know that she is an older sister to Moshe. She watches out for him when is placed in the river and intercedes with Par'o's daughter to have Moshe nursed by his own mother. According to Rabbinic tradition, Miryam was one of the mid-wives that saved the Jewish babies from Par'os decree to kill them at childbirth. She was called Pu'ah (Sh'mot 1:15; see Rashi there) because she made soothing noises to calm the children when they were born. This young woman was born into a horrifying environment of fear and murder, but - from a very young age - took responsibility upon herself to help save Jewish children from death. Interestingly, the trauma of these early years in her life may be the source of her name as well. Rashi (in his commentary on Song of Songs 2:13) says that the Egyptian repression of the Jews began to rear its ugly head right around the time she was born and her parents called her Miryam - from the root mar, meaning bitter, like marror - to express the bitterness of the increasing suffering of the Jews in Egypt.

This makes it seem like an unattractive name. But it is precisely Miryam's response to repression that makes her a role model for Jewish women. Miryam takes it upon herself to end the bitterness of the slavery. She was not given the task of negotiating with Par'o, or of leading the Jews out, or of giving them mitzvot. But she was a comforter and savior to those who were in desperate need. Miryam was the anti-bitter pill of her name. She was the one that expressed hope and optimism for a sweet future, despite the bitter present.

The Talmud teaches (Sota 12a) that when Par'o decreed to throw the baby boys into the river, Amram rose up and divorced Yocheved. They already had 2 children (Miryam and Aharon) and did not want to bring new children into an evil world where they would face near-certain death. Since Amram was one of the leaders of the Israelites, many others followed his example and separated from their wives as well. But Miryam stood up and chastised her father. She told him that his decree was worse than that of Par'os'. Par'o had only decreed against the male children, had only threatened their bodies and was not certain to succeed in his murderous plan. Amram , however, by having no more children, was sealing the fate of the girls as well, was destroying the future souls of the Jewish people and was certain to succeed. She must have been very convincing (and must have spoken with humility and repect) for her father immediately accepts her critique, re-marries his wife (Aharon and Miryam dance them down the aisle) and immediately conceives Moshe. Later, in the same section, the Talmud also suggests that Miryam received her first prophecy then, revealing that her soon-to-be baby brother would be the redeemer of Israel.

Miriam is a woman who is single-mindedly devoted to the saving of Jewish babies and no one - not even her own father or, l'havdil[3], Par'o - could intimidate her from defeating the bitter decree against them. It must have been a particularly sweet moment for Miryam when the Jewish people finally escaped the Egyptians at the parted sea and left the slavery behind. Hashem tells the children of Israel: "the way you see the Egyptians today, you shall never see them again forever." (Sh'mot 14:13), which may explain why she is the first among women to leap forward to dance and sing to Hashem at this moment. The Talmud says that the day Moshe was rescued from the Nile by Par'o's daughter was the 21st of Nisan, the very same day on which the sea split! The angels saw Moshe floating perilously upon the Nile and said: 'Is it possible that the one who will split the sea on this day would be drowned today?' The day on which Miryam saved Moshe - the day on which Moshe with Hashem's help would save the Jewish people - are the same day.

There is one additional meaning to Miryam's name. She is not only the antithesis of Par'os bitter decree, but the antithesis of the "bitter waters." Immediately after the children of Israel leave the sea, they travel three days without water and began to die of thirst. Finally, they come upon Mara, a place that has weater too bitter to drink. Bitter waters (waters that are marim) are spelled (without vowels) the exact same as Miryam. (mem-resh-yud-mem). I do't think it is a coincidence that this is the story that immediately folows Miryam's song and dance[4].

The Talmud teaches that (Ta'anit 9a) Moshe, Aharon and Miryam were a triumvirate of great leaders of the Jews. In Moshe's merit, the Israelites were given the manna, the food that fell from Heaven. In Aharon's merit, they were accompanied by the cloud that led them through the desert. In Miryam's merit, they were accompanied by a special well of water; it traveled with them for much of their time in the desert and would give forth water when needed. When Miryam died - in Nissan, around the time of the Exodus forty years later -- the well disappeared. (Bemidbar 20:1-2).

In fact, Miryam always seems to be on hand when the water threatens the Jewish people. When Par'o wants to throw the babies into the water, she saves them. When Moshe is in the river, she steps in to return him to his mother. When the Jews pass through the sea, she leads the women in celebration and when thirst threatens to destroy them in the desert, it is in her merit that the water is provided.

Miryam has courageousness and tenacity. She puts the needs of others, especially the defenseless, before her own. She is a prophetess and a leader. She seizes the moment to act, both in crisis and celebration. She reasons with her allies and her enemies and they always take her advice. She does not always follow the rules, but she always seeks the truth. She is a heroine who was needed by the Israelites in the desert and who helped them in a critical and urgent way. It is not too much to hope and pray for that my daughter should have many of the virtues of Miryam and that the Jewish women of today find such a leader and influence to rally them to action and celebration in these troubled times as well.

Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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