I have always been overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility the message of Har Sinai has placed upon women. The Midrash teaches that the Almighty asked Israel: “What can you give as an assurance that you will keep my covenant?” They offered the Patriarchs and God did not accept. They offered the Prophets and they, too, were rejected. They offered the righteous leaders and G-d said no. Then they offered the children and the Almighty accepted them. Past generations can never vouch for the future, only the future generations can do that – and the children are the future. And they are in the hands of the women.
We can say that the burden on the shoulders of women at Har Sinai is nothing less than that of Judaism’s survival. A woman’s dual traits – her intuitive comprehension of the Torah’s basic principles and her zeal in carrying out the Divine commandments – has in Rabbinic opinion rendered her a natural choice to be the receiver and transmitter of the Torah to the next generation and to serve as a role model in Torah observance.
When the towering waves of the Yam Suf swept the mighty Egyptian cavalry into its depth, and Israel burst forth in a song of gratitude to the Almighty, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam responded to them: ‘Sing to the Almighty for He is highly exalted; horse and his rider He cast into the sea!’” (Shemot 15:20-21).
Why is Miriam identified here as “the sister of Aharon” and not the daughter of Amram, as the norm?
When we first meet him, Aharon is introduced as a navi and, in contradistinction to Moshe, a fearless agent in facing Pharaoh and delivering the Divine messages. Here, by implication, Miriam is referred to as a fearless prophet.
Similarly, Elisheva, the wife of Aharon, is identified as “the sister of Nahshon” (Shemot 6:23). Nahshon the son of Aminadav, according to the Midrash, was the national hero who “fearlessly plunged into the sea, firmly believing that the Almighty would stand by Israel in their need,” thereby serving as a role model for the rest of the nation.
There seems to be an allusion to a similarity in character between Miriam “the sister of Aharon” and Nahshon the son of Aminadav, and by extension, Elisheba “the sister of Nahshon.” The parallel features of intrepid faith and a spiritual leadership quality are the obvious elements of comparison.
Resolute faith in the Almighty for Israel ’s eventual deliverance and the courage to act upon it seems to have been a common denominator of Jewish women throughout history. What greater indication of their preparedness for the coming miracle could the women have displayed than to bring along — above and beyond their basic necessities — their tambourines? In the Egyptian neighborhood one can imagine uproar and panic from the devastation wrought by the ten plagues. In the Jewish neighborhood one can imagine haste and tension in preparation for the mass exodus. And yet, in all this turmoil, the women of Israel remembered to bring along their musical instruments in order to add a touch of poetry to their expression of gratitude to the Almighty for the miraculous deliverance they fervently anticipated!
Several generations later Devorah HaNaviah displayed the same spirit, in contradistinction to Barak, courageously facing and defeating Israel’s enemy. And after the battle Devorah displayed the same poetic quality of faith when singing her triumphal ode, the Song of Deborah, celebrating Israel’s victory over the Sisrah’s army.
The pattern had been set. A long list of women prophets and poets were to follow Miriam the sister of Aharon’s lead in enhancing the leadership of faith within the Jewish world.