Miriam is a badass. Elder sister to both Moses and Aaron, she emerges in our Torah as a respected community leader and is defined by our tradition as a prophet. Limited details in the Torah portray Miriam as action-oriented and outspoken. And where her story falls silent, midrash howls speculation.
In parshah B’haalotkha, Miriam confronts Moses, objecting to his marriage with a “Cushite woman.” Aaron provides backup, but Miriam does the talking. Exactly who the Cushite woman is or why the marriage is problematic remains a mystery. Our sages brainstormed at length and offer a variety of interpretations. Rashi argues the Cushite woman is Tzipporah, named earlier as Moses’ wife from his time in Midian. He suggests that the dispute between Miriam, Aaron and Moses arose from Moses’ separation from Tzipporah. Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, provides a different explanation culled from midrash. The Cushite woman married Moses while he was King of Cush, prior to his time in Midian. The marriage with the woman from Cush had never been consummated, and Miriam simply finds the woman unsuitable for her brother.
Regardless of the specific circumstances, Miriam and Aaron defend their position by reminding Moses that they, too, are messengers of the divine. “They said, ‘has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:2).
Moses does not respond, ostensibly because of his monumental humility. But, do you really need to fight back when you have the most powerful heavy in the world? “The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, ‘Aaron and Miriam!’ The two of them came forward and He said, ‘Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; he is trusted throughout my household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!’ Still incensed with them, the Lord departed. As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales!” (Numbers 12:4 -10).
As punishment for her sin of slander, Miriam is afflicted with a skin disease and exiled from the community for seven days. Aaron escapes punishment, presumably because his sister was the ringleader. Notably, the entire community awaits Miriam’s return before continuing their journey.
Across the pages of my JPS Tanakh, Miriam’s frustration is palpable. As the oldest sibling and only girl, she’s had a hand in raising her brothers. Indeed, it was Miriam who devised a plan to save Moses and orchestrated an encounter ensuring their mother remained close to him while raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. A midrash tells the story of the divorce of Miriam’s parents and her point-counterpoint debate with her father that fostered reconciliation. It was Miriam who rocked her timbrel and organized the Israelite women. Miriam’s voice was strong and carried considerable weight. So respected was she that the entire community refused to depart without her.
I like to think of Miriam as the original Riot Grrrl. Exiled from her community, she might spend the week venting her indignation through visual art and composing monologues on the true costs of patriarchy. Perhaps, she would practice persuasive speeches in support of gender equity and tear apart her clothes to create new, hip fashion statements. From what I read in the Torah and midrash, I suspect Miriam would find some resonance with Kathleen Hanna’s words, “…I don’t know if being nice is my legacy.” At the least, the Bikini Kill command, “girls to the front,” would surely have made her smile.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.