Some years back, I lost my voice during a weekend retreat. Problem was, I was the guest speaker. I had arrived after getting over a bad cold. Friday night went fine, but by the morning, I could see trouble ahead. Lunch was held outdoors beside a fountain that gushed with enthusiasm. A perfect setting for a gathering of women. Only problem was, I now had to project outdoors and tackle the bubbling water to boot. By the time Saturday night came, I was hoarse. Yes, I’d have the help of a mike—but louder than silent is still silent.

A friend approached me and said, “Shimona, I have some olive tincture with me. It’s good for voice problems. Can I give you some?” I nodded enthusiastically, and Hinda came back some minutes later with a small vial.

I do herbs regularly. Echinacea, borage, horsetail . . . the list goes on. And I know that some are starkly bitter, but the deal is: drop in the liquid and down it with some water. That’s what I was expecting with the olive tincture. Some mistake! I could not have imagined the punch it packed. My throat rebelled, coughed out the liquid, and had to be coaxed into drinking down a second serving. Remarkably, the potion worked.

At that moment, I came to understand Miriam the prophetess in a whole new way. The seven species of the Holy Land are associated with the seven prophetesses—Devorah, for example, with dates, and Miriam with the bitter olive. The circumstances of her life make it abundantly clear why.

One of the women who profoundly prepared the world for the Messianic era was the prophetess Miriam. When the Jewish people crossed the Sea of Reeds, “Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to G‑d,”1 and then “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand. All the women followed her with drums and dancing. Miriam led them in the response, ‘Sing to G‑d for His victory is great, He has cast horse and rider into the sea . . .’”2 From the fact that the women used musical instruments and danced in accompaniment to their song, we understand that their song sprang from a well of deeper joy, and was of a higher caliber, than that of the men. And it wasn’t by chance that they had their instruments with them. In fact, “the righteous women of the generation were so confident that G‑d would perform miracles for them that they took their drums with them from Egypt” in anticipation of the celebration.3

Why, though, was their song characterized by greater joy than that of the men?

Their song sprang from a well of deeper joy The answer is alluded to in Miriam’s name, which, as in all cases, captures the essence of the person. She was named al shem hamirur,4 “for the bitterness” of the exile. It was from the time of Miriam’s birth that “the Egyptians began to make the Israelites do labor designated to break their bodies and embittered their lives with harsh labor . . . intended to break them.”5 This continued for five years, until Moses was born, and then for an additional eighty6 years until the Exodus. With her birth, the Holy One, Blessed Be He established a redeemer—Miriam,7 named for the bitterness.8

Strange, no? She is named for the bitterness, and yet is the forebear of the Redemption. Pain and salvation are opposites. Yet Miriam was capable of bringing about deliverance precisely because she felt the pain of exile more than anyone else.

She had anticipated the Redemption from early childhood. On the verse, “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand,” our sages note that she is referred to as “the sister of Aaron and not Moses. She prophesied when she was still only the sister of Aaron—and Moses had not yet been born! She said, ‘In the future, my mother will give birth to a son who will redeem Israel’ . . . When Moses was thrown into the water, her father stood up and tapped her on the head. He said to her, ‘My daughter, where is your prophecy now?’ That is why ‘[Miriam] stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.’”9 The primary aspect of her prophecy was concerning the Redemption, not just the birth of Moses, and thus she waited with bated breath to see what would be. The more the exile continued, the more pained she became.

Ironically, it was as a result of the bitterness and longing of the Jewish people that they merited to be redeemed. And the greater the bitterness over their condition, the greater was their joy at the Crossing of the Sea. “In proportion to the pain is the reward.” Therefore it was Miriam and the women—those who had suffered most deeply—who went out with drums and dancing.

They were freed from their fear of their oppressors This explains why, in describing Miriam at the Sea, the Torah calls her “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron.” It was only when the Jewish people saw the Egyptians dead on the beach, and they were freed from their fear of their oppressors, that Miriam’s prophecy was fulfilled in its entirety. At that time, their joy reached its height—and could find full expression only in a song accompanied by instruments and dance.

Women of our generation must model themselves on those of Miriam and hers. It is the women, in particular, who must instill within themselves the certainty that we will be redeemed. We should be so clear on this that even right now, during the last moments of exile, the women begin singing and drumming and dancing in anticipation of the redemption that is upon us.

Certainly, we must feel the pain of the exile and plead with G‑d to take us out—but even that pain must be permeated with the kind of joy that needs to be expressed in song and dance. If we can accomplish this within ourselves, the world will be launched into a global consciousness of liberation. We will then sing the highest of songs, for the era after which there will be only full life and joy.

Adapted from Sefer HaSichot 5752, Parshat Bo-Beshalach