Prophetess and rabble rouser, the origin tale of Miriam, hero of the Jewish people.
Table for Five: Shemot
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Then [Moses’] sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” -Ex. 2:7
Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”
Miriam, the child prophetess, is keeping watch for the next dramatic stage in the miraculous life of her baby brother, Moshe. According to the Talmud, Miriam prophesied that her mother, Yocheved, would give birth to the redeemer of the Jewish people. She then famously challenged her father to remarry her mother, whom he had divorced. With their reunion, they risked giving birth to another son, though Pharaoh had decreed death to all newborn Jewish boys.
Yocheved and Miriam are believed to be the midwives Shira and Puah, respectively. According to Dina Coopersmith, writing about Miriam on Aish.com, “Puah” can also mean “stood up to” (hofe’eah), which Miriam did not only to her father, but to Pharaoh, in history’s first act of civil disobedience, saving every newborn Jewish boy. The name Puah also refers to the nurturing actions of “cooing” and rocking that she performed with the Jewish babies.
Now Miriam stands up again, this time to Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya. Miriam was an early adopter of the “locally sourced” movement, eager to reunite her mother with Moshe for a few precious months of nursing and the vital bonding involved on many levels: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Just as kosher food is considered to have particular spiritual qualities, so does the milk of a Jewish mother. Nursing her son was also Yocheved’s reward for her personal bravery—morally and physically—in saving Jewish lives. Clearly, Miriam is one of Judaism’s earliest role models of courage, nurturing, leadership, and faith.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David – Judea
Miriam is appropriately lionized by our Sages as the character in the story who never ever gives up. The Midrash paints her as the sole voice of opposition when her father declares that under the present circumstances of Egyptian oppression, producing more Israelite children is futile. It is Miriam’s successful campaign of persuasion that inspires her parents to in fact not give up, and to conceive the child who decades later challenges Pharaoh to let his people go.
The moment at which the infant Moshe is placed in the Nile, represents the most critical decision point in Miriam’s life. Have her optimism and her insistence on retaining hope been misguided? Worse, have they only resulted in even more misery being visited upon her family? In this critical moment, Miriam’s decision to stand at the banks and to see what will unfold reveals all we need to know. Miriam decides to not give up.
Surrender and resignation are not options. Hope lives on. It is no wonder at all that she has the gumption to emerge from the bulrushes and to engage Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam is seeing her faith being rewarded again. Finding a nursemaid for the child is be the easy part. Many years later, when Miriam leads the women of Israel in song at the sea, she does so not merely at the sister of the national leader. She does so as a leader in her own right.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Multi-Faith Chaplain, Kaiser Panorama City
As the child of a Shoah Survivor what comes to mind is that bitter verdict which my dad z’l would growl with a nod, “antisemitism was in their mother’s milk.” One needn’t look far to hear echoes of that contempt in the voices of many Torah sages.
Some assert it would be a danger to leave a Hebrew child with an Egyptian nurse lest she murder him. Others endorse that a child of regal birth deserves only an elixir from the breast of his own kind. Personally, I find problematic both the pasuk and the apologetics surrounding it. I am instead left with questions.
What did Miriam really mean to telegraph to Pharaoh’s daughter? Altogether intriguing is the magnificent prospect of a sacred plot by powerful women to ultimately subvert the oppression of Pharaoh.
My holy teacher Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer frames this notion in her thesis of the “Rebel Women of Exodus.” To this read of our text, a coterie of Egyptian and Hebrew women engaged in civil disobedience for the purpose of protecting babies; ultimately nursing God’s triumph in the narrative. It starts with Shifra and Pua in outright protest of the evil decree to slaughter Jewish male infants. Defiance continues with radical hope, as Yocheved sets the baby forth on the very waters meant to destroy him. Pharaoh’s daughter fulfils her share of the prophecy by shining compassion upon the foundling Moshe. The nascent Exodus is veritably sunk without the determined and cross-cultural community organizing of tenacious women!
Bracha Goetz, Author of 38 spiritual children’s books
Miriam prophesied that her mother would give birth to a son who would help to free the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, and when Moses was born, the house became filled with great light. By the time Moses was three months old, however, it became impossible to hide him from the Egyptian death squads. A decree had been made by Pharaoh for soldiers to find and kill all Jewish baby boys, so Moses’s mother Jochebed waterproofed a basket and put her infant son in it, setting him afloat in the Nile River.
Brave seven-year-old Miriam hid in the bulrushes by the riverbank, so she could watch over her baby brother. She waited to see what would happen as he floated down the river, hoping that her prophecy could somehow still be fulfilled even though things appeared so hopeless. Miriam got to witness the daughter of Pharaoh discovering Moshe in the basket in the Nile.
When the crying infant refused to nurse from an Egyptian nursemaid, Miriam courageously came out of hiding and offered to find a Jewish woman to nurse him. Bringing Jochebed to nurse her own baby, Miriam helped to save both Moses’s physical and spiritual life. This is how Moses ended up spending significant time during the beginning years of his life with his own mother. She nourished both his body and his soul, helping him to become the caring, humble, and devoted leader who did, indeed, help to rescue the Jewish people from enslavement.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Prominent Motivational Speaker
“Every Jewish Child Can Become A Star!”
The dramatic moment of Basya, Pharaoh’s daughter, drawing baby Moshe from the Nile River was soon followed by the incredulous question posed by Moshe’s sister, Miriam to Basya “shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” [Exodus: 2:7]. Rashi explains the reason for Miriam’s question – Moshe refused to nurse from the Egyptian women since the same mouth that would suckle was destined to speak with Hashem.
The Vilna Gaon explains that this incident is the source of the halacha brought by the Rema that one should not appoint a nurse of an idol worshipper if it is possible to use a Jewish woman because the milk of an idol worshipper “corrupts the hearts and plants a bad nature in the baby.” [Yareh Deah 81:7].
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky Zt”l asks a powerful question on these words – How is it possible to say that a child should not drink from a non-Jew’s milk when the entire basis of this law is learned from Moshe – i.e. – is every child going to speak face to face with Hashem?
Based on this question, Rav Yaakov learns a tremendous lesson in child-raising: Every child has the potential to speak face to face with Hashem in the future. The best gift we can give our children is for them to believe they can reach the greatest height. Such self-confidence and drive may not mean they reach the Heavens, but they will surely be amongst the stars!
With thanks to Judy Gruen, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Bracha Goetz, and Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon.
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