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The Prophecy of Faith in Others (Parshat Beshalach)

Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

The Prophecy of Faith in Others
(Parshat Beshalach)


וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כׇֽל־הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת׃

And Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aharon, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went after her in dance with timbrels.

This week’s parsha features the first time a woman is described as a prophetess in the Torah.  The identification is unusual because we are told of no communication between Hashem and Miriam to this point.  Commentators therefore ask, what makes Miriam a neviah?    Even more peculiar, why is she called Aharon’s sister and not also the sister of Moshe?

Two different approaches to these questions emerge from commentators.  The first approach is to answer the question specifically in the context of the story of Shirat HaYam, that moment when the entire Jewish People prophetically joined in song to Hashem.   A broader approach eyes the entire trajectory of Miriam’s life until this point.

The Ramban and Chizkuni, who focus on the context of this episode of the Song at the Sea, explain that after Torah spotlights Moshe it proceeds to spotlight Miriam.  The pasuk describes her as the sister of Aharon to even out the playing field and to give honor to Aharon at Kriat Yam Suf. 

Commentators in this camp also explain the identification of Miriam as a neviah - not in terms of an actual prophecy, but rather, as an articulate spokeswoman and leader.  Rashbam explains that  the term נביא or נביאה is accorded to people who either are held in high esteem by their peers for their eloquence or their ability to admonish and lead their peers.  Miriam is not only acting as an eloquent leader, composing songs of praise and leading the women of the nation.  She is also demonstrating a style of leadership that is organic and natural, where the women don’t have to be encouraged or told to follow; it occurs automatically:   …וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם … אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כׇֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ

However, the more midrashically oriented commentators understand why Miriam is designated as a neviah specifically here and why she is described as the sister of Aharon. The gemara in Megilla, which our Daf Yomi just concluded this past Thursday teaches as follows: 

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן״, וְלֹא אֲחוֹת מֹשֶׁה?

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand” (Exodus 15:20). The Gemara asks: Was she the sister only of Aaron, and not the sister of Moshe? 

אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן אָמַר רַב: שֶׁהָיְתָה מִתְנַבְּאָה כְּשֶׁהִיא אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, וְאוֹמֶרֶת: עֲתִידָה אִמִּי שֶׁתֵּלֵד בֵּן שֶׁיּוֹשִׁיעַ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל. 

Rav Naḥman said that Rav said: For she prophesied when she was the sister of Aaron, i.e., she prophesied since her youth, even before Moses was born, and she would say: My mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people to salvation.

וּבְשָׁעָה שֶׁנּוֹלַד נִתְמַלֵּא כָּל הַבַּיִת כּוּלּוֹ אוֹרָה, עָמַד אָבִיהָ וּנְשָׁקָהּ עַל רֹאשָׁהּ, אָמַר לָהּ: בִּתִּי נִתְקַיְּימָה נְבוּאָתִיךְ.

And at the time when Moses was born the entire house was filled with light, and her father stood and kissed her on the head, and said to her: My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.

וְכֵיוָן שֶׁהִשְׁלִיכוּהוּ לַיְאוֹר, עָמַד אָבִיהָ וּטְפָחָהּ עַל רֹאשָׁהּ, וְאָמַר לָהּ: בִּתִּי הֵיכָן נְבוּאָתִיךְ? 

But once Moses was cast into the river, her father arose and rapped her on the head, saying to her: My daughter, where is your prophecy now?

הַיְינוּ דִּכְתִיב: ״וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחוֹתוֹ מֵרָחוֹק לְדֵעָה״. לָדַעַת מָה יְהֵא בְּסוֹף נְבוּאָתָהּ.

This is the meaning of that which is written with regard to Miriam’s watching Moses in the river: “And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him” (Exodus 2:4), i.e., to know what would be with the end of her prophecy, as she had prophesied that her brother was destined to be the savior of the Jewish people.

This Gemara describes Miriam receiving prophesy as a young girl, more attuned to God’s plan than her two parents (who were also leaders), displaying a unique kind of emunah, of faith, during challenging times.  At first glance these two interpretative approaches seem quite different from each other and go as far as to translate the word נביא differently.

But, when we examine that gemara more carefully we find that the two interpretative approaches complement one another and that Miriam the prophetess can teach us much. Not only about prophecy, but about leadership, intuition, and vision. The midrash describes Miriam as saying, in the future my mother will give birth to a leader.  

The midrash does not tell us that Hasehm actually spoke to Miriam in a direct way; it simply portrays Miriam telling her family her prediction.  Miriam’s prophesy was a prophesy of hope and prophesy of believing in others.  During a dark and difficult time for her people, when her parents had separated, Miriam offers a vision of promise, of hope, a nevuah.   The prophecy takes someone who believes and is hopeful to find it and see it. She believes in her parents, she believes in Moshe’s ability to survive (not just physically but spiritually as he is raised in the palace).

Miriam’s prophecy stands in stark contrast to Moshe’s initial prophesy where God speaks to him directly at the sneh but Moshe expresses doubts and cynicism about his own ability to communicate and the ability of the nation to believe him.

Miriam’s prophesy teaches us about leadership. She moves people, the women follow her because she believes in people and her belief in others changes their belief in turn.

Most importantly, Miriam can teach us how to parent. Not every child’s trajectory will be one of success following success. Every one encounters challenges. Haven’t we all at one point or another?  What our children, as well as the others in our life, need is a prophet -- someone who can see their bright future. Someone who knows what they are capable of. Someone who will watch them and not be afraid even when they are tossed into the river. Be a prophet or prophetess. Sing the song of Miriam.



Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784