The character of Miriam


When we study the Book of Shemot (Exodus) we notice that as a child, Miriam already displayed signs of leadership, against the background of slavery in Egypt.

The Torah tells us how Miriam is present in the distance, to see what would happen to her brother when placed in the ark in the Yior (River Nile). As soon as she sees the Pharaoh’s daughter showing pity for the child, she runs to her and offers to bring a Hebrew woman to suckle him, hoping to bring her mother to feed Moses.

The Midrash of Shemot Rabbah complements what is described in the Torah, mentioning the same vision of young Miriam’s amazing courage, responsibility and maturity. The biblical description indicates that Miriam saved Moses’ life and she is identified in the Midrash as one of the Hebrew midwives (Puah, together with her mother Jochebed) and as not being afraid to confront the Pharaoh. She even endangered her life through her devotion to the birth of children and to the continuity of the people of Israel and of faith in God. The Creator would take revenge (literally lehipara or ‘to charge’, in Hebrew) on the Pharaoh (Para, in Hebrew, the same root and letters of the word ‘charge’).

Just as Miriam confronts the Pharaoh she also, with all due differences, confronts her father, Amram.

Our wise men say that as head of the Sanhedrin, Amram decides to move on the issue of divorce in Egypt. He allows men to divorce their wives (“Amran rose and divorced his wife, and all the men rose and divorced their wives”), to stop the birth of further male children, because of the great affliction of the Children of Israel and the fact that they were thrown into the river. Jochebed does not speak regarding Amram’s decree, but Miriam was courageously against it, saying that her father is cooperating with the Pharaoh, the great tyrant: "The Pharaoh made a decree only about the men, but her father decreed regarding both men and women”.

This Midrash arises from a key issue presented by the Pesukim (biblical verses): Amram marries Jochebed: “Now a man from the house [family] of Levi went and took [an expression that in Hebrew can also mean take or marry] as his wife a Levite woman” (Exodus 2;1) and then Moses was born. However, his older siblings, Aaron and Miriam, were grown by then! That means that Jochebed and Amram were already married. The Midrash then tells of Amram’s attempt to divorce his wife and of being stopped by his daughter Miriam, and so “he will take a daughter of Levi".

The Torah says that Miriam was a prophetess and not only that but the sister of Aaron, and so the Torah alludes to the prophecy of Miriam even when she was the “sister of Aaron”, before the birth of Moses.

In Shirat HaYam (“Song of the Sea”, Exodus 15:1-18) we see the unique style of her leadership of the Exodus into Egypt and also in the desert. In Shirat, Miriam (“Song of Miriam”, Exodus 15:20-21) we see in general a kind of “reflex” of the song of Moses (“And Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song”) but, regarding women, as explained by Rashi. It is seen as a parallel of Moses and the men. This interpretation ‘reduces’ Miriam’s leadership to women alone. Other comments see Miriam as a leader of all the Children of Israel, side by side with Moses and Aaron, although the story of her leadership merits only a short passage in the Torah.

The Book of Zohar describes the Song of Miriam not only as a song inviting the Daughters of Israel to sing, but as a song arousing the inhabitants of Gan Eden and the higher angels to join together and raise their voices in a song of praise. And Miriam took the drum in her hand and all those just people in Gan Eden listened to her pleasing voice and with her the holy angels thank and praise the Holy Name.

So, now we have the question of how the prophetess Miriam, sister to Moses and Aaron, and leader of her people, reaches a situation where she is punished for the sin of lashon hara (defamation, slander).

For seven days Miriam, sister of Moses, was “leprous like snow”. For seven days this great woman confessed and was sent away from the camp in Israel until she ceased to be leprous. That is the sad story that concludes this parashah (weekly Torah portion). A story to which the Torah devotes seventeen Pesukim (in Numbers 12:1-16) to teach us about the importance of this event and its lasting and eternal value. We are obliged by the Torah constantly to remember this story. This remembrance has become a mitzvah (biblical teaching) that is not well known.

“Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam along the way after you came out of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 24:9)”

And what should we remember? Rashi explains that Miriam spoke evil against Moses, and so was punished with leprosy, but it is quite difficult to understand why she was punished. What had she done? She talked to her brother Aaron about the fact that Moses had divorced his wife. She did not think this right, as the other prophets had not divorced their wives and so it is hard to understand why she sinned.

To sum up, we can infer that:

1. Everything she said was true;
2. She did not speak in public but only to her brother Aaron;
3. She told no one outside her family, but only a close relative;
4. Her only intention was to obtain the best for Moses before the Creator of the World;
5. Our master Moses was not offended for it is written that there was no humbler person on earth than he;
6. She did not speak to condemn him but only to show that Moses was like the other prophets [that he might have a conjugal life and did not have to be divorced from his wife];
7. She spoke about her brother whom she loved with all her soul and had saved from the river;
8. Miriam was a very fair person and one of the seven prophetesses mentioned in the Bible.

Why was she so severely punished for something so minor?

According to Raban and Rambam, the questions above are also the answers:
1. You must not speak lashon hara even when speaking the truth;
2. It is forbidden even if you are alone:
3. Even if it is said to a close relative;
4. Even with our best intention;
5. Even when speaking of someone who is not offended by what was said:
6. Even if only a part and not the whole, the person’s intrinsic value is diminished;
7. Even if it regards someone we love deeply, and even more so regarding someone for whom we harbour no feelings;
8. And all the above is not a small but a huge sin.

As Miriam, a prophetess, a most just person, whose aim was to do good for Moses and the People of Israel through what she said, even so committed the sin of lashon hara, so should we all have the obligation to study the laws of lashon hara and consider the correct conditions and details when we can speak on behalf of your neighbor, so that we do not destroy – God forbid -, but correct and purify.

“And he who wishes to be purified will receive help from Heaven”.