Remembering Miriam

A closer look at Moses's sister.

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Leadership Lost

Was there a leadership role that was lost with the death of Miriam? If the Israelites were to remain true to their religion in the generations to come, it would be because the women passed their faith and traditions on to their children. Moses' efforts had gone into legislating primarily for the Israelite men and had largely neglected to consider the roles of women, who were often invisible in the legal codes. In our midrash, however, Miriam had seen to the women and the education of the children.

What qualifications would there be for Miriam's successor? Eleazar was destined for his priestly role by virtue of his lineage. Joshua had been chosen because he was judged to be a capable military commander. But whoever was to succeed Miriam would have to qualify directly through God's gift, because no one had thought to name a successor. Moses, in that one prescient moment, understood that a vital piece of the community might have died with Miriam.

But it did not die, although it became obscured. Miriam's legacy, which we are just beginning to retrieve, models our capacity to care for those more vulnerable than ourselves (as she did for her infant brother), to intervene in history regardless of our position (as she did when she approached the princess and when she challenged Moses' conduct and leadership), and to dance as well as to sing publicly as a form of worship.

In our parashah, we learn something else as well: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron" (20:1-2). Rabbinic tradition, recognizing that something of major import was lost with the death of Miriam, found in the juxtaposition of Miriam's death with the peoples' crying out for water a powerful symbol for this loss. A midrash tells us that throughout the Israelites' sojourn in the wilderness, a well followed them. With the death of Miriam, the well dried up. How can we best understand what Miriam's Well represented?

Centers of Practice

Israel in the Bible had two main centers of practice: the Tent of Meeting (or Tabernacle, later replaced by the Temple) and the home. The rules governing the Tent of Meeting take up much of Leviticus, but the life that is to be conducted in the home receives relatively little mention. Moses, we might say, had focused on institutional religion. But in our midrashic rendering of the story, Miriam's gift was to raise up the personal practices of the Israelites and to help the women of Israel recognize and claim their homes as a sacred place. Each woman's own Sabbath table became like an altar. While Moses showed the Israelites the God who spoke to them from the top of Sinai, Miriam enabled the women to see that God could also be found around the cooking fires in their own tents.

Miriam also helped the women change their idea of holy space (from the set-apart Tent of Meeting to their own homes). In a time when the male leaders were focusing on all that was separate and distinct, Miriam taught the women to find the holy wherever they were open to it, whenever they could be responsive.

And just as her imagined teachings sought to move beyond separation, her own tradition is not to be found in a separate text but in the words that mothers have told their daughters and sons since then: God is found in and through all that we remember, all that we experience, all that we hope for. Miriam's Well stands for what is nourishing and life-giving-it stands for the dining table, the cradle, and the welcoming embrace of our loved ones.

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Carol Ochs teaches at Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is currently preparing a new edition of her book Women and Spirituality for Rowman and Littlefield Press.