When the Israelites had successfully crossed the Red Sea, Moses led the (apparently all-male) crowds in a long song praising God’s greatness. Then, the Torah tells us:
Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with drums. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15:20-21)
This scene offers a powerful image of women’s leadership, the participation of women in the miracle of the splitting of the sea, and their communal celebration — through song and dance — when they had safely crossed over to the other side.
But already in ancient times, people noticed that the Torah’s description of this scene is also pretty weird. Let us look at two aspects of this description. First, Miriam — whose brother Moses has just led the Israelites out of slavery and performed miracles — is described as the sister of the less famous Aaron. While Aaron will eventually take on an important independent role as high priest, until now he has functioned as Moses’ mouthpiece. So why would the Torah describe Miriam as Aaron’s sister, and not Moses?
Second, Miriam is called a prophet. In fact, she is the first woman in the Torah to be described as a prophet. But we haven’t actually read any of her prophecies — so what made her a prophet?
Lucky for us, the Talmud on today’s daf offers us answers to these questions.
A sage teaches: Amram was the great man of his generation. Once he saw that the wicked Pharaoh said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (Exodus 1:22), he said: We are laboring for nothing. He arose and divorced his wife. All arose and divorced their wives.
For context, at this point in the story, Amram was already married to Yocheved, and they had two children — Miriam and her younger brother Aaron. But when Pharaoh decreed that all infant boys born to the Israelites must be killed, Amram led his community into divorcing, foreclosing the possibility of more children entirely. (And yes, the teaching assumes that children only happen in the context of marriage — but let’s take up that assumption for the purposes of understanding what the Talmud is doing here).
Seeing her father divorce her mother, Miriam stands up and speaks out.
His daughter said to him: Father, your decree is more harsh than that of Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed on the males and on the females. And Pharaoh decreed to kill them only in this world, but you decreed in this world and in the World-to-Come.
Pharaoh the wicked, it is uncertain whether his decree will be fulfilled, and it is uncertain if it will not be fulfilled. You are a righteous person, your decrees will certainly be fulfilled, as it is stated: “You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto you” (Job 22:28).
Miriam points out that Pharaoh’s decree only threatens Israelite boys, and has the possibility of being thwarted. But Amram’s decree ensures there will be no future children at all. Miriam insists that if Amram remarries Yocheved, and they have a son, God will ensure his survival — and the survival of the Israelites. And immediately:
He arose and brought back his wife, and all arose and brought back their wives.
According to the story in the Talmud, this little girl is responsible for the perpetuation of the Israelites, the birth of Moses, and — ultimately — the Israelites’ redemption from slavery and oppression.
It turns out that what seems at first glance to be an unrelated story is actually a very clever set of answers to the strangeness of the biblical verse in Exodus. Miriam is a prophet because she prophesied that the son of Amram and Yocheved would survive. And she is called the sister of Aaron in order to signal that at the moment of her first prophecy, she had only one brother, Aaron. But she does not stop there.
According to Exodus, she uses the privilege of leadership to create a profound celebration of the glory of God and God’s miracles for the women who experienced it.
Read all of Sotah 12 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 10th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.