“His sister [Miriam] stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.” (Exodus 2:4)
In general, I observe Jewish rituals without major changes. But in recent years my wife and I have added something new to our Passover Seder. In addition to the traditional cup of wine for Elijah, we add a cup of water for Miriam. Miriam, Moses’ older sister, was one of several women who were heroines in the exodus from Egypt. That is the reason the Rabbis called her Miriam HaNeviah, “Miriam the Prophetess.”
The story of Miriam tells the power of Rabbinic Midrash to embellish the Biblical story. The Torah speaks of a man from the tribe of Levi taking a wife from the tribe of Levi and giving birth to baby Moses. But how could that be? Moses already had an older sister Miriam and an older brother Aaron. The Midrashic answer is that the man and woman had separated, and only afterwards came together to give birth to Moses.
Why did they come back together? The Midrash teaches that it was Miriam who convinced them. Pharaoh had declared that all Jewish males born should be cast into the Nile. Unwilling to risk giving birth, Moses’ parents separate. So do all the other Israelite couples. Then Miriam approaches her parents and convinces them that their behavior was mistaken.
According to the Midrash, Miriam tells her parents, “Pharaoh only decreed against the boys, you are decreeing against both boys and girls. Pharaoh’s decree may be overturned, but if you have no children your decree will not be overturned. Pharaoh’s decree is only in this world, but your decree is also for the World to Come.” Miriam’s passionate words convince her parents to come together. As a result, baby Moses is born.
Of course, we know the story. Moses’ mother hides the baby in a basket and places him in the Nile. The fate of her child is now in God’s hands. But the older sister Miriam takes action. She follows the basket down the river, sees when Pharaoh’s daughter rescues the baby, and convinces her to find a wet nurse for the baby. Miriam then arranges for Moses’ own mother to nurse the baby, as he grows up in Pharaoh’s household. Of course, as we know, Moses would lead the people from slavery to freedom.
Later the Midrash fills in other stories about Miriam. At the parting of the Sea, she takes the women with tambourines and leads them in their own song of the sea. Much later the Torah reports the death of Miriam. Immediately following her death, the people are without water. This would lead to the story of Moses striking the rock. What was the relationship between Miriam and water? According to the Midrash, she had a magical well that followed her through the wilderness providing water to the Israelites. Miriam’s well was one of the miracles made by God at the eve of creation.
We put a cup of water at our Seder to celebrate the role of Moses’ sister, and remember the role of all of the women responsible for the exodus. We bought a special cup to match our Elijah cup, with a picture of Miriam holding the tambourine. As we begin to read the story of the exodus from Egypt, perhaps it is worthy to remember the older sister who helped make it happen. She was truly a prophet, able to see the future of her actions.