Why is it that most history books are filled with the stories of men? It is certainly not a proper expression of a woman’s important role in history. The Torah is no different than the history books. Some of our greatest Jewish historical figures were heroines, yet their presence in the Torah is minimal.
Feminists may think this is a reflection of the inequality they believe exists in the Jewish tradition. I’d like to propose that it is merely a reflection of roles and needs.
When I worked for the National Child Abuse Hotline, I was the supervisor of the crisis line. I was not the CEO of the company. Nor was I involved in the residential treatment programs despite extensive experience in that area. I had a specific role and, with it, came certain responsibilities. That’s just how it was.
Within all areas of our lives, we have specific functions. For some reason, mothers tend to be the primary caregivers of children. There are more men than women in the army. You can certainly find the opposite genders in both these positions, but – typically – we fulfill separate roles. The janitor in a school does not teach the children math. Likewise, a bakery does not usually serve sushi. There are different roles and different functions for each of our roles.
In Jewish Law, women are commanded to observe fewer mitzvot than men. This is, in part, because of our role and, in part, because we just don’t need it. Women innately possess a different level of spirituality than men do.
Miriam is certainly one of our Jewish Heroines, and she is mentioned only a handful of times in the Torah. I’m not certain she needed any more recognition for her accomplishments. In spite of this, I’m pretty sure the magnitude of her role is grasped by the few sentences we do have about her.
Miriam was the oldest child born to Amram and Yocheved. Moses and Aharon were the younger brothers of Miriam. At an early age, Miriam prophesized that her parents would have a son who would bring the Jewish people to liberation. Later, Moses was born.
When Pharaoh dictated that all first-born sons were to be killed, Miriam and Yocheved, who were midwives, did not adhere to Pharaoh ’s governance. Instead they maintained their faith in G-d, despite the difficulties in doing so, and hid the baby boys from their deaths.
When Moses was born, Yocheved tried to keep him hidden but was unable to do it. He was placed in a basket which was put in the river by Miriam. She watched to see who would pick him up, knowing that he would be saved. Miriam watched as Pharaoh’s daughter pulled Moses out of the river. Miriam approached her and told her that she knew a woman who had just given birth and who could nurse this baby. Yocheved became the milk maiden for her own son.
Another instance where Miriam was mentioned in the Torah occurred when the Jews were liberated from Egypt. After crossing through the parted sea, Miriam led a celebration of song and dance. While it may seem inconsequential, this act has been inspirational for women ever since.
Even in her mistakes, Miriam has left us with great lessons. When she and Aharon spoke negatively about Moshe’s wife, a Cushite woman, Miriam was punished with leprosy. The entire Jewish nation waited seven days while Miriam healed. And, Miriam left us with a powerful lesson in Lashon Hora (evil tongue, speaking negatively) and relationships.
The name Miriam means “bitter” and she was given this name due to the harsh times she was born into. Yet, Miriam always maintained hope. She is a reminder to women everywhere that it is our actions and not the recognition we receive from them that is most perpetuating.