Another Eulogy for Miriam

When the Children of Israel complain—yet again—because they have no water, Moses loses it completely (Numbers 20). Many think he lost control because he was grieving the loss of his sister Miriam.

Miriam had saved his life when he was a baby (Exodus 2) and was his confidante throughout his life.

The Sages taught (based on Numbers 21.17-18) that because of Miriam, a well accompanied Israel that disappeared when Miriam died. (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4 :12, section 3). Another Midrash suggests that Miriam’s well was one of ten sacred things  God created at twilight, just before the first Shabbat (Pirke Avot 5 :8). Rav Hiyya taught that Miriam’s well became an eternal memorial to her, embedded in the sea of Galilee and visible from the top of Mt. Carmel. (B. Shabbat 3a ; Yerushalmi, Kilaim 9 :4, p. 32C)

These midrashim represent the Sages’ desire to give Miriam the credit she deserves but which Scripture denies her.

We see the Bible’s discrimination most clearly in the story (Numbers 12) in which both Aaron and Miriam criticize Moses for marrying a Cushite (dark-skinned) woman. Aaron gets off with a lecture but God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. Moses prays for his sister’s immediate recovery, but God does not relent, and she must remain outside the camp for seven days.

Today in some quarters of the Jewish world, Miriam rises to the status of Moses’ equal. Indeed, Dr. Ellen Frankel, former Editor in Chief of the Jewish Publication Society of America, wrote a commentary on the Torah entitled, The Five Books of Miriam.

Even if it is an over correction, it is a worthy attempt to mitigate the slight of Miriam and so many other biblical women.


Another comment on Parashat Hukat, (Numbers 19 :1-22 :1)


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