Bitter was the daily fare of the Jewish slaves in their Egyptian exile. The people were demoralized and depressed, stripped of any vestige of dignity. Under the taskmaster’s whip, the Jewish nation’s heart had become dulled, their minds numbed and their bodies too worn to muster any faith.
One group of slaves, however, did not succumb, and carried in their hearts an inextinguishable spark of optimism. Encouraging their families daily with superhuman strength, they remained confident that their prayers would be answered.
This group of slaves was the Jewish women.
After an exhausting day, the women would beautify themselves for their husbands. They would sneak out to the men’s camps bringing hot, nourishing food, speaking soft, soothing words. “Do not lose hope. We have G-d’s promise that He will redeem us.”
How did these women discover their reservoirs of hope amidst a hopeless situation?
The women had a leader and a teacher to emulate. Her name was Miriam.
From where did Miriam derive her courage and vision?
Miriam’s name has two meanings, both exemplifying her character.
The first, from the Hebrew root mar, is “bitterness.” Miriam was born at the time that the oppression had reached its nadir.
The other meaning of Miriam’s name is “rebellion”. Despite being born into the most difficult period of oppression, Miriam rebelled against the slave mentality engulfing her people. Though she felt their pain acutely, she would not despair.
We are introduced to Miriam just as the new Pharaoh ascends the Egyptian throne commanding the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah (Yocheved) and Puah (Miriam) to kill all the male babies.
“The midwives feared G-d and did not act as the king commanded them” (Exodus 1:8-17).
According to the Midrash, Miriam was called Puah since she “revealed her face brazenly (hofiya) against Pharaoh pronouncing, ‘Woe to this man, when G-d avenges him!’
“Pharaoh was infuriated and wanted to have Miriam killed. But, Yocheved appeased him, ‘Will you pay attention to her? She is but a child!'”
Miriam was only five years old at this time. Despite her tender years, Miriam valiantly stood up to the mightiest ruler on earth, audaciously rebuking him for his cruelty.
This was Miriam, the mother of rebellion.
Another incident in Miriam’s childhood also reflects her strong character.
After Pharaoh decree, Amram, Miriam’s father, divorced his wife, setting an example for all others. If no children would be born, he reasoned, innocent babies would not be killed.
Miriam approached Amram saying: “Father! Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you are decreeing against both males and females!
“You must remarry Mother. She is destined to give birth to a son who will set Israel free!”
Miriam was six years old when she confronted her father. Her words made such a profound impact that he and all the Jewish men remarried their wives. An entire generation was transformed, due to the courage and vision of the young Miriam.
Shortly after, Yocheved gave birth to a son and the house was filled with his holy light. Their happiness was shattered, however, with the realization that he would be killed.
“And Yocheved took an ark made of reedsand put the child in it by the river’s bank. And his sister (Miriam) stood far away.”
Miriam stood by the river to see not if, but how her prophecy would unfold.
She felt the pain and bitterness of her brother being torn away. But at the same time, she was filled with her spirit of rebellion — she would not succumb to hopelessness.
This was Miriam. She encompassed the dual qualities of feeling the intensity of pain while at the same time rebelling against its overpowering hold to discover a seed of faith and yearning, deep within.
In the thicket of the bushes, Miriam witnessed Batyah, Pharaoh’s daughter discover the basket and rescue the child. A self-assured Miriam approached Batyah to suggest a Hebrew wet-nurse and brought Moshe back to his own mother.
Decades later, on the shores of the Yam Suf, after hundreds of years in exile, the Jews experienced a miraculous salvation. Under Moshe’s direction, they sing the Shirat Hayam, expressing their ecstatic gratitude to G-d.
And as Moshe and his nation concluded their song, “Miriam the prophetesstook a tambourine; and all the women went out with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the L-rd'”.
The men sang with their voices. But the women’s song was composed with voice, tambourines, and dance. The women’s hearts were full of a greater joy and their song was more comprehensive.
When the Jewish people left Egypt, they left hastily. Yet despite their hurriedness, the women took the time to prepare, something that they felt would be essential.
After hundreds of years in bitter exile — after witnessing acts of utter barbarism, after weeping rivers of tears — what did these women prepare while still slaves in Egypt? What do their worn, tired, tortured and beaten bodies carry out of Egypt?
Instruments with which to sing and praise G-d for the miracles they knew would come to be.
Engulfed in misery, the women did not lose vision. They found Miriam’s spirit of rebellion.
Amidst their agony, the women prepared tambourines. They fanned the spark of yearning within their worn souls until it grew into an overpowering, inextinguishable flame of faith. Their only concern was being adequately prepared to sing with the appropriate expressions of joy for the miracles that were sure to occur!
This was the strength of Miriam. A feminine strength born out from bitterness; a faith sewed amidst despair.
This was the strength of the women who left Egypt.
And this is the strength of all women.
Chana Weisberg is the author of four books, the latest, “Divine Whispers” and “Jewish Women: Past, Present and Future” soon to be released. She is also a columnist for www.chabad.org’s Weekly Magazine. Weisberg lectures on issues relating to women, relationships, and mysticism and is currently scheduling a worldwide book tour to promote her new books. To book a talk for your community or for information on her speaking schedule please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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