I share with you today my own midrash, my imagined story of Miriam, Moses’ older sister, immediately after the Israelites walked on dry land through the Sea of Reeds and were saved from the pursuing Egyptians, who drowned.
For me, this project was as much about practicing creative writing – unleashing my analytical judgmental self to write less self-consciously in order to write more imaginatively as it was about melding traditional midrash with a novel interpretation of the text. I wanted to project Miriam as a deeper person, molded and strengthened by a lifetime of experiences, and also to elevate her to a more pronounced leader of the people. I also wanted to weave into the midrash theological questions that I grapple with on an ongoing basis.
And now the voice of Miriam:
I am facing eastward to the waters, rippling and reflecting in the morning sunlight. I see in it the multitude of bodies crowding all around me. During the night the waters surged to their greatest heights during their split to make dry land for us to pass through, down below. We are dazed. We have been through one ordeal after another. This one brought us to the very depths of fear and uncertainty and then to the heights of safety but no certainty. No known destination – no path – no map – no end in sight – no guarantee of a better life ahead. My arms are planted at my sides. I cannot move, for fear I will disturb this new reality and slip in the slick mud of low tide, and slide into the waters that have swallowed up my so-called enemy for everlasting memory. As it is, my only sandals were frayed and also split apart, as we moved and plodded along in haste on the pebbled and rutted sea floor. My arms are pressed to my body by the huddles of the masses who mirror my astonishment at what just happened. Fortunately, I am not tethered to elderly parents or children, clutching – holding – cradling – soothing – frantic of losing them. Moses, my brother, stands above all of us, and there is Aaron by his side. Unable to move, unable to speak or be heard, I gaze at the waters in front of me,
It is a month into our desert wanderings. We have not even shed the clothes we wore at the moment of escape from Egypt. What do we need to grab as we break loose from our captivity? What items to pack for survival, what means of pallets to transport the very old and the very young, what food with preservatives, what footwear to withstand the sand and keep us from sinking, what manner of vessel or skins to hold the most drinking water, what ritual items to ensure cultural and spiritual continuity as a Hebrew nation apart! We may have been unprepared in the goods and wares that we needed for this journey, but we did not need to prepare for our liberation. We have contemplated, prayed for and anticipated the hour of our freedom for 400 years.
I must have been born knowing firsthand from God’s workshop that I would sow the seeds of liberation and plow up the fertile aspirations of my people to finally escape our enslavement. God whispered in my ear at a tender age to rebuke my father Amram when he feared to fulfill his procreative duty in face of Pharaoh’s evil decree to kill all Hebrew male babies. He listened to me and, he convinced all of his male cohort to do the same. I plotted with my mother Yocheved to save and protect my baby brother in a tayva (a water-proofed basket) in the reedy Nile for I saw that he, named Moses – the one who is plucked from the waters of slavery – will one day rescue the Israelites from their rotten existence, bereft of nourishment, spirit, and joy. I stood idly by while Princess Batya raised my Moses into an Egyptian noble, replete with royal vestments, royal signet, royal peers, and royal tastes. In my imagination, isolated in Goshen, I saw him learning how to survive through competition in chariot races, archery, javelin-throwing, and wrestling. I cried out to God: What can we do together to remind Prince Moses of his roots and re-position him to see the oppression of his real people? Because I asked, God answered. Is this always the way? God expects us humans to stubbornly maintain our moral trajectory, but God is not a mind reader. Barukh Ata Adonai, Shomeya Tefilah – Blessed are You, Adonai, who hears my prayers
I lived with my parents and cared for them until they were gathered unto their ancestors. Then I moved in with my other brother Aaron. He is the middle child – agreeable and loyal – the peace-maker. I am the first-born and a girl, grateful to have avoided the harsh Egyptian decree, for some greater purpose. We were conjoined and determined, not only in fulfilling our daily work quotas but also in secretly awaiting the young and pampered Moses’ personal epiphany and his calling to long-awaited Operation Exodus. Aaron played the role of spiritual healer in our years in Goshen. He went from hovel to hovel, from gathering to gathering of men and boys, counseling them to never lose hope, to re-direct their anger and frustration from their hatred of the Egyptians to dreams of freedom, peace and tranquility in a land of our own. Aaron, rodef ha’shalom – the one who broke up the mini-revolts against the Egyptian taskmasters, harbored the righteously outraged rebels, and assuaged the bullies. I, on the other hand, could be called a ‘physical mender.’ I sowed the seeds of hope in my sisters – gathering them to plan for the day of departure that I had already prophesied at Moses’ birth. We dried the grains and figs and grapes. We wove the flax into layettes for the yet unborn children. We stitched together taut coverings for our tambourines. We bottled up our tinctures and herbs for healing our bodies. We prepared to go.
We also needed to cultivate a habit of gratitude for the precious little that we had, in order to shape the words and let them resound when all the negativity of slavery melts away. We needed to learn to sing and dance again and play our instruments that lay in dust in the niches of our homes and hearts, so that we will know the notes and the steps when the time to truly be grateful arrives. We needed to sew pockets inside our tunics, not only to suckle our babies as we marched on our journey to freedom, but also to stow away our music-makers for that day to come!
I see clearly now, standing still and carrying both triumph and uncertainty in the hands still planted at my side, still stinging from hard labor and laden with memories of the stinking work pits, lashings, and the corpses below the water surface in front of me, and, of the apprehension of what awaits us behind my head. It’s time to face that direction. I swivel slowly, careful to untether with my thumbs the tots clinging to my tunic. I lift my hands to my waist and clasp them together in prayerful pose of gratitude, as I had taught the women in our weekly gatherings in Goshen. And then, I lift my eyes to the endless desert ahead and behold for the first time the antithesis of the crowded squalor of Egypt – a great expanse, a haven for the oppressed, a refuge for the soul, welcoming me into its bosom.
I see the waves and waves of sand, rippling and burning in the rising of the sun, the desert shrubs peeking out from the high mountain basins – mirr and zilla and habag, bardagoosh (sage) and the ubiquitous acacia. In their roots are the foundations of the Israelite nation. In their branches are stored up water droplets and sweet sap to insure survival in the arid land. On their leaves are thorns to ward off adversaries from all directions. I see the craters of sand full of swirls and funnels into which the sweat and humiliation and shame of my people as Egyptian slaves can disappear. And, beginning tomorrow, I will walk with my people sometimes across the sand dunes, but more often zigzagging up and down the desert mountains shedding as we go our ragged slave clothes upon the rocks.
I blink my eyes and I am back at the seashore in the present moment looking at all the women around me. They are wrapped in the awesome images of the Divine dominating Moses’ song still lingering in the air – Ish milkhama, yad yemin [v’khazak], kharon ha’ma’akhil, ruakh apo, ayma v’pakhad – man of war, mighty right hand, consuming wrath, blasting wind, terror and fear. They wonder: Who is this God who wrought miracle after miracle to redeem us – and yet remains for Moses, our leader, the heavenly embodiment of dread and disquietude? Like the roots of the desert plants, how insecure and wobbly are the people’s sea legs at this moment! How utterly tired in body and soul! How lost they feel without a clear destination to hold onto!
I need to soften their anxious frowns to smiles of relief. I need to help them take the first step forward. I dip my right hand into the side slit of my tunic, deep into the sewn pocket on my breast. I retrieve my tambourine and raise it high above my head. It is a familiar signal to all who have practiced for this moment. Aaron from afar nods his approval. He has always nurtured the leader in me. When I saved baby Moses, I paled as his nameless big sister. I knew him as sister-protector – some say as midwife – but Moses never knew me. Now I am Miriam, the sister of Aaron. To Aaron I have always had a name. When we were young, we spent our days in tandem – I, beating the dirt out of laundry and the flax fiber into linen, while Aaron shoveled and heaped the red clay earth to be made into bricks and mortar. At night we sat together around our family clan’s fire for hours at a time listening to both the pestering complaints festering in the elders and the yearnings for liberation among the youth. I was so full of rage against our oppressors. I used to run to the perimeter wall of the great palace to hear anything about my little brother. Aaron always ran after me to save me from the patrolling Egyptian royal guards, and from myself. As I grew in age, I grew in passion and impatience for the fulfillment of my life’s mission and my recurring dream to hear Moses say before Pharaoh “Let my people go!”
Aaron always stood firmly at my side. Even now from afar in the crowd, I can still feel his presence. He raises his hands together in approval. Yet, Moses is looking away from me. In the moment of his greatest victory in the eyes of his people thus far, he looks down at the sea from which we just emerged and up at the God of might and vengeance. Moses does not see me at all. Moses does not know that I am the one who will turn our weakened spirits away from the body-strewn sea of his God’s victory. If he had wanted to show gratitude to me after I told him the story of his birth and how Aaron and I gathered our people in preparation for his Godsent mission, he never did. I did not need Moses’ verbal approbation but I did deserve to stand by his side along with Aaron. The women sought my prayers and my songs, expressing artful and spiritual longings next to Moses’ politics and practical concerns. The people sought my God of lovingkindness, mercy, and compassion.
In spite of the miracle and our relief from the pursuant enemy, I have just witnessed the annihilation of the entire Egyptian army. They are God’s creatures, too. Even God’s own protestations against the reveling angels on high do not negate the punitive God of Moses’ song of the sea. I will denounce the bitterness of the sea that swallowed them and make it sweet. I am Miriam. I am not bitter waters. I am ma’or yam. I am a luminary of waters. Let me lighten up my people’s worries and light in them a spark of passion and of vision. Let me be their beacon for finding the well waters and hydrating their parched bodies as we journey from place to place to the Promised Land.
The women part for me as the waters parted, and I sashay, then leap into an open space, followed by my sisters with their single, cherished belonging – their instrument, their tambourine, to beat with their beating hearts, beating to a crescendo of euphoria. Anakhnu n’varekh Ya – halleluyah – we will bless you God with Halleluyah! We are whirling dervishes, dancing with abandon, circling, spiraling, bowing, and reaching up to the heavens with every spin. The sounds of our timbrels reverberate through space and time, suspended in the joy of the moment and in the eyes of the little ones safely tucked away between the legs of their grannies.
In time, the dancers are spent and their worries are deferred. The women return to their children. I step slowly and thoughtfully to the midpoint between the men and the women. I plant my feet on the rocky seashore, trembling from the dancing, and from the boldness of my song yet to be sung. Like the desert plant, I seek still waters, but I do not know if the climate of this moment will sustain me or kill me. Va’taan lahem: I turn to face Moses and bear witness to all as I re-direct my brother’s prayer-song of praise to the One Above. He ended and I begin with shiru l’Adonai ki ga’o ga’ah, sus v’rokhvo rama va’yam – “Sing to God, for God is exalted – horse and rider God has thrown into the sea.” Does my brother Moses really want us to embrace the Israelite God in these lines? Moses’ God has and will save us though a power greater than any of our enemies. But power without limits is destructive and vengeful. I repeat these lines in rebuke, looking directly at Moses, even if he does not look at me. Enough. Conquest is not a guarantee for our freedom. We must eat and drink and dance and sate our need for awe and closeness and love without fear, with each other and with the Divine Presence, as we wander our way home. I have bellowed out my call and response song. To the plaintive and pleading tone of my voice and the beating of my drum, the people turn from Moses and Aaron and they follow me. I am silent.