Pesach: A Prophetess

April 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on March 28, 2010.)

During the week of Passover, we pause in the annual cycle of Torah readings and return to the book of Exodus.  Today I have a question about one word in the book of Exodus:  neviah.

Right after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea (yam suf in Hebrew really means the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea), Moses leads the people in a lengthy song (which reads like a psalm from a later period, and refers to events that do not quite fit the account of what happened in Exodus).  When his song ends, the Torah says:

Then Miryam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went forth after her, with drums and with dances.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20, Beshallach)

ha-neviah = the prophetess (a feminine form of ha-navi = the prophet)

Miryam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a prophetess.  She leads a song as well as the dancing and drumming.  Scholars consider her song to be one of the oldest songs or poems in the Torah:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He threw down into the sea.

But why is Miryam considered a prophet?

To be a prophet, in the ancient Jewish writings, means several things:  to spend some time in an altered state of consciousness, seized by the ruach ha-kodesh (the wind or spirit of holiness); to tell important people (such as kings) when they are doing something wrong; and to predict what will happen in the near future if people don’t change their ways.

Is Miryam touched by the ruach ha-kodesh?  I think so.  After the perilous crossing of the Reed Sea, instead of collapsing and shaking with relief, she leads an ecstatic dance.

Does Miryam tell important people they are doing something wrong?  Only once, when she criticizes Moses on account of his behavior concerning his wife (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1).  But in the Talmud tractates Sotah and Megillah, some rabbis claim that Miryam scolded her father Amram for divorcing his wife and persuading all the other Hebrew men that it was better to stop having children than to see their male infants drowned in the Nile.  According to this midrash, Miryam told her father that the men’s abstinence was not fair to the female babies who would otherwise have been born.

Does Miryam make a prediction that comes true?  The Talmud says she predicted that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this midrash, the whole house filled with light, and Miryam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.

I think a prediction is implied in the Torah, as well.  After crossing the Reed Sea, Miryam and all the other women pull out small drums, tufim, sometimes called timbrels.  Surely if they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs, they must have left a lot of items behind.  Why did they bother to bring their drums?

Perhaps Miryam the prophetess told them to.  As slaves, the women might have given up their traditional celebrations with drums and dancing.  What was there to celebrate?  Maybe the old timbrels passed down through the generations, collecting dust in attics, but no one had the energy to play them.  Did Miryam know that soon the women could celebrate their liberation from Egypt—if only they would change from despair to hope, and bring those drums?

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