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Miriam: Tambourines of Rebellion

Miriam: Tambourines of Rebellion

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''Miriam's Tambourine'' © Michoel Muchnik
"Miriam's Tambourine" © Michoel Muchnik

Bitter was the daily fare of the Jewish slaves in their Egyptian exile. What began as forced labor steadily degenerated into acts of unspeakable brutality and horror, culminating with Pharaoh’s decree to murder all newborn male infants, and his bathing in Jewish children’s blood.

While the physical labor was backbreaking, the moral toll was similarly exacting. The family unit was shattered, wives separated from husbands, who were forced to remain at their work sites in faraway fields. The people were demoralized and depressed, stripped of any vestige of dignity or self-respect. Under the daily terror of the taskmaster’s whip, it seemed useless to hope for a better tomorrow.

The Jewish nation’s heart had become too dulled, their minds too numbed and their bodies too worn to muster any faith.


One group of slaves, however, did not succumb, and carried in their hearts an inextinguishable spark of optimism. They retained their human dignity; they continued to believe in a better life. Encouraging their families daily with superhuman strength, they remained confident that their prayers would be answered.

This group of slaves was the Jewish women.

“In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.”1

After an exhausting day of excruciating labor, the women would polish their mirrors and use them to beautify themselves for their husbands.2

At night, the women would sneak out to the men’s camps, bringing hot, nourishing food. They would heat water in the fields and bathe their husbands’ wounds.

The women spoke soft, soothing words. “Do not lose hope. We will not be slaves to these degenerates all our lives. We have G‑d’s promise that He will have mercy on us and redeem us.”

Many women conceived during these visits, subsequently giving birth to the children who would ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.3


How did these Jewish women discover their reservoirs of hope amidst a hopeless situation?

The women had a leader and a teacher to emulate.

Her name was Miriam.

The Talmud comments: “There were three excellent leaders for Israel. They were Moses, Aaron and Miriam.”

While Moses and Aaron were leaders for all the people, “Miriam was the teacher of the women.”4

She was a teacher who led by example.


From where did Miriam derive her courage and vision?

Miriam’s name has two meanings, both exemplifying the qualities of her character.

The first, from the Hebrew root mar, is “bitterness.”

Miriam was born at the time when the oppression of the exile had reached its nadir. “They [the Egyptians] embittered [vayemareru, from the root mar] their lives with hard work” (Exodus 1:14).

Born into the worst period of servitude, Miriam felt the bitterness and ache of her people. Her earliest years were formed by the heartbreaking reality of the Jewish exile.

Witnessing the murders and the torment, she wept with her brethren, praying incessant prayers and hoping beyond hope for a better future.

Miriam was personally exposed to the decrees of the wicked Pharaoh; no one could understand the bitterness of the exile better than Miriam.

The other meaning of Miriam’s name is “rebellion” (from the root meri).

Despite being born into the most difficult period of oppression, Miriam rebelled from her earliest age against the slave mentality engulfing her people.

Though she felt their pain acutely, she would not succumb to fear or despair. Though she was exposed to abject cruelty, she would not yield to moral corruption or apathy. Bravely and resolutely, she kept vigilant watch over the faith in the promise of redemption.

We are introduced to Miriam just as the new Pharaoh ascends the Egyptian throne. “There arose a new king over Egypt . . . He spoke to the Hebrew midwives; the name of one was Shifrah, and the name of the other, Puah.

“And he said, ‘When you act as a midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthing stool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live.’”

Despite this decree, “the midwives feared G‑d and did not act as the king of Egypt commanded them . . . And it came to pass because the midwives feared G‑d, that He made them houses . . .”(Exodus 1:8–17).

Rashi explains that the names of the midwives mentioned were the professional names of Yocheved and Miriam.

Yocheved (Miriam’s mother) was called Shifrah because she was expert in beautifying (from the root shafar) and cleansing the newborn. Miriam, though still a child, was expert in cooing (from the root pa’ah) to the newborn, calming a crying infant with her soothing voice.5

According to the Midrash, Miriam was called Puah due to another episode. “She revealed her face brazenly (from the root hofi’a) against Pharaoh, pronouncing, ‘Woe to this man, when G‑d avenges him!’

“Pharaoh was infuriated with Miriam’s statement, and wanted to have her killed. But Yocheved pleaded, ‘Will you pay attention to her? She is but a child who doesn’t realize to whom she is speaking, or what she is saying!’”6

Miriam was only five years old at this time. Despite her tender years, Miriam valiantly stood up to the mightiest ruler on earth, audaciously rebuking him for his cruelty to her people.

This was Miriam, the mother of rebellion.

Rebelling against the status quo, fighting against apathy and cruelty. Bravely, she and her mother disregarded Pharaoh’s edict to murder the infant boys, even providing food and necessities for their survival.7

G‑d repaid these valiant women by granting them “houses”: from them issued the dynasties of priesthood, Levites and kingship.8 Such positions of leadership could be filled only by the descendants of such women, who would pass on their moral strength and convictions, enabling them to prevail over any acts of immorality or injustice.


Another incident in Miriam’s childhood also reflects her strong character and ability to stand up against the status quo and, despite the bleakness of the moment, find an enduring faith in a more promising future.

The Talmud relates that when Pharaoh decreed that all newborn baby boys be cast into the Nile River, Amram, Miriam’s father, decided to divorce his wife.

As the preeminent leader of the generation, Amram was setting an example for all others. If no children would be born, innocent babies would not be killed.

All the men of the generation followed Amram’s example, divorcing their own wives.

Observing this, Miriam approached her father, saying: “Father! Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh decreed against only the males, but you are decreeing that our people should be bereft of both males and females!

“Pharaoh is a wicked man, and therefore it is unlikely that his decree will stand; but you are righteous, and your decree will be carried out.

“Furthermore, Pharaoh is doing evil only in this world. The murdered infants are innocent, and have a portion in the world to come. But your decree will deprive them of the next world, for if a child is never born, how can he gain a portion in the future world?

“You must remarry Mother. She is destined to give birth to a son who will set Israel free!”9

Miriam was six years old when she confronted her father. Her words made such a profound impact on him that he brought her before the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme court) to repeat her petition.

The members of the Sanhedrin responded to Amram, “You forbade [us to remain married to our wives]; you must now permit.”

He said, “Should we return to our wives quietly?”

They answered, “And who will let all the Jewish people know [to likewise remarry their wives]?”10

Amram placed his wife on a beautiful chuppah (bridal platform). Aaron and Miriam danced and sang before her, as before a bride. Miriam sang repeatedly, “My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will set Israel free!”

Though Yocheved was 130 years old, her youth miraculously returned and she became beautiful as a fifteen-year-old. Even the ministering angels joined with them, singing, “A joyous mother of children.”11

After seeing this, the rest of the Jewish men also remarried their wives. An entire generation was transformed, all due to the courage and vision of the young Miriam, who had the confidence to speak her mind and declare her prophecy.

Shortly after, Yocheved gave birth to a son and “saw that he was good.”

At the moment that Moses was born, the entire house was filled with the holy light of his divine radiance.12 Amram kissed Miriam on her head and said to her, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled!”

The happiness of the moment was shattered, however, with the realization that this male child would be taken to be killed.

“When Yocheved could no longer hide him, she took for him a box made of reeds . . . and put the child in it and laid it in the rushes by the river’s bank. And his sister [Miriam] stood far away, to see what would be done to him.” (Exodus 2:2–4)

When they took Moses to the river, the disheartened Yocheved hit Miriam on the head and said, “My daughter, where is your prophecy now?”13

But Miriam remained stubbornly resolute.

She stood by the river to see not if, but how her prophecy would unfold.

She, too, felt the pain and bitterness of her baby brother being torn away from her family. But at the same time, she was filled with her spirit of rebellion—she would not succumb to hopelessness.

This was Miriam. She encompassed the dual qualities of feeling the intensity of pain, while at the same time rebelling against its overpowering hold, to discover a seed of faith and yearning deep within.

In the thicket of the bushes, Miriam stood watch over her brother’s fledgling life. It was she who witnessed Batyah, the daughter of Pharaoh, come to bathe in the Nile River. Discovering the basket at the edge of the river and hearing the woeful cries of the infant within, Batyah decided to rescue the child.

It was a self-assured Miriam who approached Batyah to suggest that she would bring the baby to a Hebrew wet-nurse. Unbeknownst to Batyah, Miriam brought Moses back to his own mother.

Moses remained in his home, absorbing the crucial spiritual nourishment of these tender years until he was weaned. Only after being equipped with his parents’ love and teachings was Moses transferred back to the royal palace to begin his role as leader and redeemer.

Miriam was there, standing watch on the bank of the Nile, as her entire nation’s future hung in balance over the precarious fate of an infant floating in a small basket in the mammoth river. But never did her faith in the redemption of her people falter. As the leader of the women, Miriam imbued this quality in their aching hearts. And, it was this quality that empowered the righteous women to be the purveyors of the redemption.


We are now many decades later, on the shores of the Red Sea.

Moses has grown, and has returned from Midian as the divinely appointed redeemer of his people. G‑d had performed the wondrous ten plagues to punish the Egyptians’ cruelty and free His people from their oppression. The people have marched triumphantly out of Egypt. Then, as they were being chased by a recalcitrant king and his army, G‑d miraculously split the sea, saving His people and drowning their enemies.

Finally, after hundreds of years in exile, their enemies had been utterly thwarted and the Jews experienced a complete, miraculous salvation. The Jewish people’s ordeal in Egypt was over! Their servitude had come to an end, and their redemption was palpable.

Standing at the shores of the Red Sea, the Jewish people, under the direction of their leader Moses, begin to sing the Shirat HaYam, a song expressing their ecstatic gratitude and thanksgiving to G‑d.

And as Moses and his nation concluded their song, something inexplicable happens.

“Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the L‑rd . . .’” (Exodus 15:20–21).

Moses and the men sang their song. And then Miriam and the women rose to sing their song.

The men sang with their voices. But the women’s song was composed with voice, tambourines and dance. The women’s hearts were full of a greater joy, and their song was more comprehensive.

What was the women’s contribution to the singing? Why did Miriam and the women’s singing surpass the men’s song?

Rashi (Exodus 15:20) explains how the women had these tambourines with them. “The righteous women of that generation were confident that the Holy One, Blessed be He, would make miracles for them, so they prepared tambourines and dances.”

When the Jewish people left Egypt, they left hastily. So hastily, in fact, that they were not even able to finish baking their bread, and it baked flat on their backs as matzah. The women were not concerned about their physical sustenance; they were certain that G‑d would provide. They lived in a higher dimension, beyond the natural reality. Yet, despite their hurriedness, the women took the time to prepare well in advance something that they felt would be essential.

After hundreds of years in bitter exile—after witnessing acts of utter barbarism, after weeping rivers of tears for the babies torn from their arms, after seeing their children cemented alive into brick walls to fill missing quotas—what did these women prepare while still slaves in Egypt?

What was on the minds of these women who had seen affliction beyond the human breaking point? What was on the hearts of these women who bore too much anguish to fathom? What do their worn, tired, tortured and beaten bodies carry out of Egypt?

Tambourines.

Instruments with which to sing and praise their G‑d for the miracles they knew would come to be.

Engulfed in misery, the women did not lose their vision. Mourning their murdered children with their feminine sensitivity more keenly than any of their male counterparts possibly could, the women found the strength to fortify themselves not to lose hope.

The women found meri, Miriam’s spirit of rebellion. They would rebel against depression that would have been a natural outgrowth of such circumstances. They would rebel against apathy. They would rebel against hopelessness.

Amidst their agony, the women prepared tambourines. They fanned the spark of yearning within their worn souls until it grew into an overpowering, inextinguishable flame of faith.

As bitter as their lives became, their faith grew stronger.

Certain beyond a shred of doubt that their G‑d would remember them, their only concern was being adequately prepared to sing with the appropriate expressions of joy for the miracles that were sure to occur!

This was the strength of Miriam. A feminine strength born out of bitterness, a faith sewed amidst despair.

This was the strength of the women who left Egypt, equipped with tambourines and dances of joy and faith.

And this is the strength of all women.


Related text-based video course:
Miriam, Mother of Rebellion
Introduction
Childhood Courage
Conviction and Belief
Miriam’s Song
Miriam’s Eternal Legacy
Footnotes
1.
Talmud, Sotah 11b.
2.
These mirrors were later donated by the women to the Tabernacle. At first, Moses was reluctant to use what he perceived to be tools of vanity in the making of the divine dwelling. But G‑d attested to the merit of the women in using these mirrors to encourage their husbands by instructing that the mirrors be melted down and made into the kiyor, the water basin at which the priests purified themselves before performing the service.
3.
Midrash Tanchuma; Talmud, Sotah 11a.
4.
Talmud, Taanit 9a; Targum Yonatan, Micah 6:4.
5.
Rashi to Exodus 1:15; see also Shemot Rabbah 1:17 and Talmud, Sotah 11b.
6.
Shemot Rabbah ibid.
7.
Rashi to Exodus 1:17.
8.
Rashi to Exodus 1:21, from Talmud, Sotah 11b.
9.
Talmud, Sotah 12a; Shemot Rabbah 1:17; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:20.
10.
Pesikta Rabbati 43:27.
12.
Rashi to Exodus 2:2.
13.
Shemot Rabbah 1:25.
Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of five popular books.
Illustration by Chassidic artist Michoel Muchnik; click here to view or purchase Mr. Muchnik's art.
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Melody Bier California August 13, 2017

Explanation of name Miriam I am named for my GreatAunt Miriam who was murdered at Auschwitz. This means so VERY much to me. Kol hakavod. Reply

Anonymous January 5, 2017

K my name is Miriam and you don't know how much this meant to me... Reply

Brad Watson, Miami Miami December 31, 2015

Some state that Miriam was 7 years older than Moses and 4 years older than Aaron. If this is correct, it would be a BIG example of G-D=7_4 theory (google that). Can you confirm this with sources? Apparently, Miriam's age is not in the Torah Reply

Richard Phila.Pa. March 24, 2014

It's exciting to read of Miriam heroic life but, where are such acts recorded in this long history of the Jews? We know where to read of Moses and Joshua, Joseph, Solomon. Where does one find such biography for Miriam? Is any one source more reccomended than others? Reply

Songs of Israel Salina January 4, 2014

Thank you for this article and this site. For I am being drawn into my Jewish heritage as a believer. G-d has taught me to sing and dance and now I understand further what is going on in my being and what my place is to be as a woman of faith. Reply

Miriam Sklar December 20, 2013

Miriam The series on Miriam and Exodus was wonderful Having been named Miriam I have spent much time reading and learning about her. I have been told that I am like her in many ways For this I thank HASHEM greatly!! I feel blessed and honored to be like the Miriam of our history. I say to all who share the name we should be sure we are living up to the great woman of our people! We are leaders and helpers and filled with love lets be sure we use it for only good. Reply

Patsy Jean Ball Virginia December 16, 2013

Jewish I prayed as a little girl to be Jewish. I read my bible most of the time and I knew in that book was written that you were a chosen people of The Most High. I hope I don't offend anyone by writing the previous phrase.I read everyday from this website. You have given me knowledge that brings such joy. This one was no exception, Miram. I still wish I were a Jew at 63 years and a female. You will never fully understand how I thirst for your words and comments.Thank You Reply

Miriam October 18, 2013

Hey...this is so awesome, I've learnt so much I didn't know. All Miriams! Let's rise to the occasion and the name. Reply

Anonymous April 18, 2013

Miriam Have always carried a torch for her. In that regard it's my favorite name. Whenever i say it or hear it, i day dream back to her and The Exodus. Reply

Ken Goss Missouri, USA April 17, 2013

Excellent Beautiful illustration! What an example she gave to the world. Very well done. May G-d bless you. Reply

Anonymous February 5, 2013

Dear Sister,
Thank you for sharing Miriam with me. I have always believed her to be a cherished daughter of G-d and now that I know more about her and her courage to stand for truth and righteousness I feel greater respect for her and all women who honor their G-d.
I hope to read more of your writings.
Barbara Reply

Shifra Sharfstein January 23, 2013

Incredible article! Thank you Chana! Reply

Avigayil Chana Boston, MA via chabadnashoba.org January 5, 2013

"houses" footnote please? Hello... may I have a reference for the following, so I can do some study? Thank you!
---------------
"G-d repaid these valiant women by granting the "Houses" -- from them issued the dynasties of Priesthood, Levites and Kingship. Such positions of leadership could only be filled by the descendants of such women who would pass on their moral strength and convictions, enabling them to prevail over any acts of immorality or injustice." Reply

Miriam kampala, uganda July 11, 2012

wow! good detail attached....now i know why i get to do somethings the way i do.... Reply

Mordi July 25, 2011

Leiby Kretzky Your history of Miriam reminds me that in the face of the murder of Leiby Kletzky, we should rebel against depression; rebel against apathy, rebel against hopelessness.

" As bitter as their lives became, their faith grew stronger. "

Perhaps this is one of the legacies of Leiby. Reply

STEPHANY york, pa July 24, 2011

We have a lot in common, thanks for writing this article. Reply

Peshe Mael Israel July 7, 2011

Thank You Just composed a lesson plan basing most of it off this divrei Torah. Searched... for information on this generation of women, there's not much out there. So, thank you. And kol hakavod on all the research! Reply

miriam chaguanas, trinidad January 24, 2011

love the article it describes exactly who i am and it's comforting to know the reason for the bitterness and rebellion. excellent article i feel wonderful to have such a strong name Reply

Mordi January 12, 2011

any chance that you can distinguish for me Exodus 15:1 Moses' song versus Exodus 15:19 Miriam's Song in terms of the words. Did they sing the same song?

In Siddur Tehillat Hashem on page 198 does the paragraph starting " Az Yashir Moshe ... " refer to Moshe's song or Miriam's song? Or Is it alluding to both? Reply

Miriam Yanovsky sharon, US December 1, 2010

Good job chana! this article really moves you this is exactly what I needed for my report Reply

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