There are several female figures in the Tanach and Jewish tradition whom I adore—primarily Yael and Judith, who both display a certain penchant for unpredictable violence that I greatly admire. But it’s Miriam the Prophet, the OG HBIC of the Exodus story, who is my ride-or-die Torah figure. And no, I don’t love her simply because we share a name and an appreciation of percussion instruments. What’s admirable about Miriam is her ethos and representation as a visible, powerful Jewish woman with an in-your-face, take-no-shit attitude and a deep disrespect for authority.
Miriam, the older sister of Aaron and Moses, is introduced in the Torah as the daughter of Amram and Yocheved, of the Israeli tribe Levi. Born into slavery in Egypt, Miriam has the gift of prophecy from a young age—she is the first of seven major female prophets in Judaism. She is credited by the Talmudic sages as giving her first middle finger to authority when she met Pharaoh in her role as a midwife (under the name “Puah,” which can be translated as “speak out”), when he commanded her to commit genocide against her own people by killing all the male Jewish children. Spoiler alert: She did not do that. A midrash tells of her snarling at Pharaoh: “Woe to you on the day of judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you!”
The Talmud recounts that her second insurrection against Men with Bad Ideas was against her own father, who had separated from Yocheved. Miriam, as a child prodigy midwife, already knew about the birds and the bees. As a prophetess, she also already knew Moses was going to be the son of Amram and Yocheved, so she abstinence-shamed them into reconciling and conceiving Moses. This is all very uncomfortable—I mean, how old was she when she was telling her parents to have more sex? But the point remains that in every instance we encounter Miriam, in the Tanach, Talmud or Midrash, she stays on brand in standing up for what she thinks is right. She’s proud of her heritage and knows the Israelites will be redeemed from their horrific circumstances by Moses, before Moses was even a twinkle in Amram’s eye. She adheres to her knowledge of the imminent freedom of the Israelites when everyone around her sheds bitter tears because they can’t see a way out of their oppression.
The bitterness of the enslavement of the Jews is built into Miriam’s name. The letters in the name mean “bitter” and “water,” like tears. Water is also a huge signifier of Miriam’s presence and power. Still a child, she watches over helpless baby Moses in his basket in the Nile, making sure he doesn’t get eaten by a rando crocodile or a hangry, hangry hippo. When Batya, daughter of Pharaoh, finds Moses and wants to adopt him, Miriam finesses her into hiring Yocheved as his nurse.
After the splitting of the Red Sea and tambourine in hand, she leads the Israelites in Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea. The hilarious part of this is, of course, that as a prophet she clearly told the women that while they had to leave Egypt so fast their bread couldn’t rise, they should on no account forget to pack their tambourines! The Song of the Sea solidifies her role as a prophet to the people, a leader not because of nepotism but because of her own confidence in the escape of the Israelites from both the army of Egypt and the subsequent en masse drowning that killed the aforementioned Egyptian army.
The sages teach that where Miriam went, water followed. During the wanderings of the Jews through the desert for 40 years on their way to the land of Israel, a miraculous well followed her. Wherever she walked, Miriam made sure everyone stayed hydrated.
Throughout the story of the Israelites in Exodus, she only gets shut down by one character, and that character happens to be God. Miriam talks to Aaron, criticizing Moses for divorcing his wife. (As we have established, Miriam wasn’t a particular fan of the men in her family making unilateral decisions like that.) God literally shows up at her tent door (in the form of a cloud) and calls her out by name for criticizing Moses behind his back. God says (and I am paraphrasing): “Hey, girl, you’re great. I love all my prophets. But Moses is my BFF!” God then gives Miriam a brief bout of leprosy as punishment—some sources suggest that God was actually disappointed she didn’t express her criticism directly to Moses himself, as clearly that was Miriam’s M.O. Either way, it doesn’t seem that God stayed mad at her for very long. Miriam dies like Moses and Aaron die—from direct revelation of the Divine Presence, a death reserved for the righteous. Miriam and the idea of redemption are so connected in this story that she merits being an ancestor to the line of Jewish kings, including King David and, the sages teach, the eventual messiah.
Today, the character of Miriam the Prophet gets some attention as a visible, proud Jewish woman—many folks set a cup of Miriam beside the cup of the prophet Elijah at their Passover seder table to remember her contribution to our freedom. Other communities honor her at the seder by adding a piece of fish to the seder plate to mark her association with water.
But there’s another meaning of Miriam’s name, one that isn’t associated with water, and one I like much better. The other translation is “rebellion.” Miriam speaks up and rebels against the genocidal malevolence of Pharaoh, against her father for leaving her mother and against the subjugation of her people. She rebels against Moses, the leader of her people, when she feels it necessary. Our heritage from Miriam is this: Feel the spirit of rebellion chase out hopelessness. Speak up, stand up and rebel.