Who has not heard of Miriam the prophetess, Moses’ older sister? A woman who inspired a whole generation of Jews enslaved in Egypt. A woman who put her life on the line to save infants whom Pharaoh had ordered murdered. A woman so righteous, she prophesized the redemption; a woman so believing, she prepared musical instruments for the praises of thanksgiving the Jews would sing upon their liberation. After the Exodus, it was due to her Who has not heard of Miriam the prophetess?merit that while traveling through the desert, the Jews had fresh water spouting from a rock called “Miriam’s Well.”

Though there is so much to learn from Miriam, the Torah highlights one incident of her life, and enjoins us to always “remember what G‑d did to Miriam on the way from Egypt” (Deut 24:9). In fact, this is one of only six incidents we are commanded to recall every day.

What episode does this verse refer to?

Miriam discovered that Moses had separated from his wife, Tzipporah, due to his exalted spiritual level. When discussing the matter with her brother Aaron, she praised Tzipporah as a woman of beauty and perfection in all ways, and expressed her feeling that Moses wasn’t justified in separating from her. In Miriam’s estimation, Moses’ spiritual level was not an adequate reason for him to separate; after all, she and Aaron were both married prophets.

Miriam underestimated Moses and his superior level of prophecy. Moses was unparalleled—G‑d would appear to him at all times. He had to be “on call” at every moment of the day and night, a situation that was incompatible with marriage.

G‑d chastised Miriam: “How were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?” For speaking improperly about Moses, G‑d afflicted Miriam with leprosy, and she was placed in quarantine for seven days outside the Jewish encampment. Though the Jews were meant to continue their travels, out of respect for Miriam they waited until her return.1

This is the episode that the Torah enjoins us never to forget.

This remembrance is classically understood as a daily reminder about the perniciousness of lashon hara (negative speech), and how sensitive and careful we need to be with our words. Miriam loved Moses dearly, and her words carried no harmful intent. She did not even speak negatively about Moses, other than comparing him to other prophets. The subject of her conversation, Moses, was much too humble to have Miriam loved Moses dearly, and her words carried no harmful intent.taken any offense. Nevertheless, Miriam was punished. How much more so must we be vigilant not to speak negatively about others!

But this begs a question: Of all the stories about Miriam, why did the Torah choose this unflattering incident and make it mandatory to remember? Is there not another way to achieve the same desired result—heightened consciousness of the evils of lashon hara? Why should such an inspirational and righteous woman be remembered for a (well-intentioned, one-time) mistake? This story must also convey something positive about Miriam, a message hidden beneath the surface.

In the Jewish view, marriage is a sacred ideal, a holy institution. There must have been a very exceptional circumstance that would cause Moses and Tzipporah to make such a personal sacrifice and separate. Miriam understood this, but couldn’t make peace with the situation. Miriam was singlemindedly devoted to the Jewish people. In Egypt, she disregarded mortal risk and served alongside her mother, Yocheved, as a midwife. She was nicknamed “Puah” due to her knack for pacifying the newborn babies. She and her mother saved countless babies when they defied Pharaoh’s orders.

Children were Miriam’s love and passion. The continuity of Judaism was her cause. Miriam understood that each child born strengthens the entire Jewish nation; each soul is another candle that illuminates the world.

Miriam couldn’t help but dream of Moses and Tzipporah having another child.2 If every child born is a priceless asset to the Jewish nation, how much more so a child born to and raised by such spiritual giants!

When Miriam discovered that Moses was separated from Tzipporah, she was in a quandary. On the one hand, dare she speak against Moses? Along with the entire Jewish nation, she witnessed G‑d exclusively addressing Moses at Mt. Sinai. She saw him descend from the mountain with the tablets. He was the conduit for G‑d’s missives to the nation. There was no doubt of his greatness. It was clear that challenging anything he did could have severe consequences; an affront against the ultimate servant of G‑d was tantamount to Could she be silent in the face of such unrealized potential?an affront against G‑d! On the other hand, could she contain herself? Could she be silent in the face of such unrealized potential?

What happened next is history. Miriam’s conclusion was that if there was even a slight chance that her efforts would lead to Moses and Tzipporah reuniting and producing another child, she was prepared to take the risk. She would make that sacrifice.

In the final analysis, Miriam erred; she failed to appreciate Moses’ unique level of prophecy and relationship with G‑d that precluded his marriage. Precisely because of her greatness, the punishment for this slight mistake was so severe. G‑d holds the righteous to a very high standard. Without a doubt, however, her intentions were noble and pure, her self-sacrifice valued, and her perspective laudable and worthy of emulation. Therefore, the entire nation—along with the Tabernacle, the Ark, and the Divine Presence—respectfully waited for her return before resuming their travels.

Remembering the story daily reminds us to refrain from speaking ill of others, but it also underscores the importance of bearing children. Miriam’s self-sacrifice and determination serve as an ever-present inspiration.

This essay is dedicated to my dear mother, Rebbetzin Tzivia Miriam Gurary o.b.m., in honor of her seventh yahrtzeit.