Chagrah boz matneha v’taametz zeroteha
“She girds her loins with strength and she makes her arms courageous”
Parents are the ones who are supposed to guide their children. It is rare that children are the ones giving their parents advice. And yet, there are times in life that that something needs to be said, and while we may not be the best person to say it (or we may even be the worst person to say it), the message is more important than the messenger.
When Pharaoh decreed that all the Jewish baby boys were to be thrown in the Nile, Jewish couples decided to abstain from sexual relations from fear that they would conceive a boy who would then be killed. But to little Miriam, only five-years-old at the time, this was just not OK.
So she sat down with her parents for what must have been an incredibly awkward conversation. She argued that if they didn’t bear children, the end result was even worse than the original decree. By abstaining they were ensuring that no babies be brought into this world and that was, in essence, killing then both boys and girls. She was so adamant in her argument, so passionate in her mission, that they agreed, and following this incident Yocheved became pregnant with Moshe.
Now, let’s think about this for a minute. Miriam was a five-year-old little girl. Not exactly one that should be speaking to her parents about their intimate life. And yet, even at that young age, she knew they simply needed to hear what she had to say and she was really the only one available to say it. Chassidic philosophy teaches us that “words from the heart enter the heart.” And fortunately, they did.
Even as a young child, Miriam worked side-by-side with her mother as a midwife. Even worse than the decree that the baby boys were to be throw into the Nile was the direct ruling to Miriam and her mother that if they delivered a baby boy they were to kill that newborn on the spot. They were allowed to let the baby girls live but were commanded to murder the boys. Knowing this was a command she faced (though one they clearly didn’t act on) further connects her to this verse about making her arms courageous as she would bring these infants into this world, risking both their lives and her own.
And we see in her name itself the power of Miriam and her message to the Jewish people, and specifically the Jewish women.
The most common explanation of her name is that its root, mar, means ‘bitter.’ The connection is that she was born at a terribly bitter time for the Jewish people when they were enslaved and suffering. More so, the rest of her name spells yam meaning ‘river’ which is clearly connected to the bitter waters where her newborn brother would be put and where so many Jewish baby boys were murdered.
When one is surrounded by bitterness, it is easy to become defined by that bitterness. It is the perfect excuse to not have to try, to not have to work hard, for it is easy to become become a victim to circumstances. Yet when one is facing bitterness and not only survives it but transforms it, that shows true character. Miriam is connected to this verse as this verse is focused on strength and courage and the ability to birth new realities. She both helps others bring new life into this world and she, even as a child, is emotionally and spiritually birthing new life as well.
The other meaning of her name is related to ‘rebellion’ from the connection to the root ‘mara.’ Miriam was a rebel with a cause. She knew what had to be done. And she did it. No matter who tried to get in her way and stop her.
After her brother, Moshe, was born and put in the Nile in a basket, she was the one who brazenly followed him until she saw him being pulled to safety by Batya, the daughter of Pharoah. Without any hesitation, she approached her and convinced her that this baby would need to be fed by a Jewish wet-nurse, and thus succeeded in being able to return him to his own family and his own mother.
Miriam’s strength and courage empowered others and helped guide them in the right direction. Years later when the Jewish people were leaving Egypt, it was Miriam who told the Jewish woman to bring tambourines with them. While still in Egypt, while still stuck in bitterness, she was already thinking and focused on their freedom. And this freedom still had tests to pass and hurdles to cross and yet she was absolutely certain it would come so that is what she planned for.
When the Jewish people finally did escape Egypt and experienced the miracle of the splitting of the sea, Miriam was there to lead the women in dance, tambourine in hand. This was a dance she was prepared for and expecting. And this was a dance that she shared with others as well for it was imperative to her that they likewise recognize that bitterness can always be transformed through happiness.
And perhaps the greatest transformation that Miriam accomplishes is through her well. The Be’er Miriam, the Well of Miriam as it is referred to, it what gave water to the Jewish people throughout their 40 years in the desert. It also hydrated the cattle and sheep and allowed the desert to bloom with flowers and green pastures.
While initially her name referred to the bitter waters connected to death, Miriam focused all she did on bringing forth and sustaining life. This began with her as a young child and continued until her death. She refused to succumb to her surroundings or to the decrees that were put on her. Rather she used every challenge she faced as an opportunity for growth and used her strength and her courage to create new realities both for herself and others.