Miriam - The Life Giver
One of the most important characters in the Book of Exodus is undoubtedly Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aharon. It is clear that her greatness is not merely due to her illustrious relatives, rather her own achievements are noteworthy in and of themselves and are worthy of examination. There are a number of aspects to this remarkable woman's life, but analysis of two of them can teach us an important lesson about the key to her greatness.
Firstly, it is a well known fundamental of Jewish thought that the name of any person or item teaches a great deal about their essence. What is the significance of the name Miriam? The Yalkut Shimoni tells us that her name is connected to the word, 'mar' which means bitter because at the time of her birth the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Jewish people.(1) Evidently, the fact that Miriam was born during such a terrible period in Jewish history plays a central role in defining the person that Miriam became.
A second clue into understanding Miriam is provided by the Talmud. During the Jewish people's forty year tenure in the desert they were miraculously provided with water, food, and protection. The Talmud tells us that the food in the form of the manna from heaven came in the merit of Moses, the protection in the form of the Clouds of Glory was in the merit of Aharon, and the water was in the merit of Miriam.(2) What is the connection between Miriam and the water that kept the Jewish people alive for forty years? The Kli Yakar explains that Miriam excelled in the trait of gomel chasadim (bestowing kindness). He cites the example of how she saved the lives of the Jewish babies in Egypt - when Pharaoh decreed that the Jewish boys be murdered, he instructed the midwives, Miriam and her mother Yocheved to perform this gruesome task. However, they put themselves in great danger by ignoring his orders and saving the babies. As a result of this great act of kindness, the Kli Yakar explains, Miriam merited to be the source of the well (named Be'er Miriam after her) that provided the people with water, the most basic necessity that humans need to survive.(3)
It is possible to expand on the Kli Yakar's explanation: Miriam's kindness was specifically directed towards the saving and maintaining of the lives of the Jewish people. This trait was expressed by Miriam from a very young age. For example, the Midrash tells us that after Pharaoh decreed to kill every Jewish newborn baby, Miriam's father, Amram decided to separate from his wife, Yocheved in order to prevent the inevitable death of any future sons. As Amram was the leader of the Jewish people, the other men followed his example and separated from their wives. Upon hearing this, the five year old Miriam rebuked her father, saying: "your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh for he only decreed on the boys, but you have done so to the boys and girls." (4) Amram accepted the rebuke and publicly remarried Yocheved and in turn everyone else followed their example and remarried. In this sense Miriam was the ultimate creator of life. If not for her, then untold numbers of Jewish children would never have been born, and Moses himself could never have come to life. As a result Miriam is given an alternative name in Divrei HaYamim, (5) that of Ephrath, (whose root form is paru - pei, reish, vav which means being fruitful) because, the Midrash tells us; "the people of Israel multiplied because of her." (6)
A further example of her remarkable efforts at saving lives is her brave refusal to obey Pharaoh's commands to kill the newborn baby boys. Instead, along with her mother, she did not kill the babies, in fact they assisted the mothers in giving birth to healthy children, and provided them with food and water.
Thus we have seen that Miriam's greatness lay in her incredible kindness, and particularly with regard to the most fundamental gift, that of life. This is why the life-giving waters of the Be'er Miriam (the well of Miriam) were in her merit. Because she risked so much to provide life to others, she was rewarded with her desire being fulfilled through the miraculous supply of water that sustained the Jewish people in the desert for forty years.
Indeed this is not the only occasion where Miriam's reward for saving lives is measure for measure. The Torah tells us her reward for saving the babies that Pharaoh had told her to kill. "God benefited the midwives - and the people increased and became very strong. And it was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses." (7) Yocheved and Miriam risked their lives to save Jewish baby boys from being murdered by the Egyptians. God rewarded them by making them 'houses' - Rashi explains that they merited to be the mothers of the lines of Priests, Levites and Kings.
Rav Moshe Feinstein asks that if their main reward was these 'houses' then why does the clause, "and the people increased and became very strong" interrupt the description of their reward - since the 'houses' were the benefit described, it would seem that they should follow immediately afterwards and the Torah should have said, "God benefited the midwives and made them houses"? He answers that their main reward was not the houses but rather the increase of the people since their true desire and joy was no more than the expansion of the Jewish population. Consequently after the verse states that God benefited them it immediately mentions the resultant expansion of the Jewish people - that was their main reward, the houses were merely a secondary bonus for their great yiras shamayim (fear of God).(8)
We can now return to the other notable aspect of Miriam that we mentioned - the fact that her name alludes to the bitter state of affairs into which she was born. It seems that the Torah is further indicating Miriam's greatness in her love of life. She was born into the most horrific situation and she could easily have given up on her own life and certainly on those of the people around her. She could have seen all the events around her, including her parents' separation in order to prevent more murders, and felt that life was of no value and there was no hope. Instead she recognized the inherent value of life and kept faith in God that He would save the Jewish people from their dire situation. It was this persistent optimism that caused her parents to remarry, and the resultant birth of the Jewish people's savior, Moses.
This teaches us a lesson that is very pertinent to modern society. There is an increasingly popular perception that it is wrong to bring 'too many' children into a world that is full of pain and suffering. According to the proponents of this outlook, life is not something that is of intrinsic value rather it is dependent on the 'life satisfaction' that a living being can derive. Given the numerous challenges that face the world such as the dire economic situation, these people believe that it is morally wrong to bring yet another mouth to feed into life. Needless to say, this view is diametrically opposed to the Torah approach epitomized by Miriam. She saw life as indeed being inherently valuable. Accordingly, the most horrific situations did not justify giving up on bring more life into the world, and on sustaining the already living. May we learn from Miriam's incredible appreciation for the value of life and emulate her achievements in bringing life to the world.
1. Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos, 165.
2. Taanit, 9a.
3. Kli Yakar quoted by the Anaf Yosef, Taanit, 9a. Of course the Manna and Clouds of Glory also provided for the needs of the people, but the Kli Yakar explains that water is the most important of all needs. A person can survive without food for several weeks, but he cannot last without water more than a few days.
4. Sotah, 12a; Shemot Rabbah, 1:17.
5. Divrei HaYamim 1,2:19.
6. Shemos Rabbah, 1:17.
7. Shemos, 1:20-21.
8. Darash Moshe, Parsha Shemos.