And there went a man of the house of Levi (Exodus 2:1). Where did he go? R.Yehudah b. Zevina said that he followed the advice of his daughter [Miriam]. A tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation. When he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, Every son that is born you shall cast into the river (Exodus 1:22), he said, “We labor in vain.” He arose and divorced his wife. All [the Hebrews] thereupon arose and divorced their wives. His daughter [Miriam] said to him, “Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh's because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas you have decreed against males and females. Pharaoh decreed only concerning this world, whereas you have decreed concerning this world and the world-to-come. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in your case, because you are righteous, it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled, as it is said, You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established for you (Job 22:28).” [Amram] arose and took his wife back in marriage; and [the Hebrew men] all arose and took their wives back in marriage.
By any measure, the women mentioned in the opening chapters of Exodus are extraordinary. The midwives Shifra and Puah courageously defy Pharaoh’s command that they kill all male Hebrew infants they deliver. Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam collude to save Moses’ life by floating him down the Nile River just in time to be seen by Pharaoh’s daughter in the hope (and one might say, confidence) that she would scoop him out and save him in defiance of her own father’s law. Indeed, Pharaoh’s daughter saves Moses and brings the tiny Hebrew infant into Pharaoh’s own palace right under his nose and raises him as her son—and Pharaoh’s very own grandson. All five women are endowed with wisdom, courage, and fortitude in abundance. They cooperate with one another to defy Pharaoh. His “us-versus-them” mentality is undermined by their determination to save and nurture life at all cost. The Rabbis concur in this assessment and enlarge Torah’s narrative by filling in “blanks” in the story. They tell a remarkable tale of then-tween Miriam’s striking role in the redemption of Israel from Egypt.
Exodus 2:1 recounts the marriage of Moses’ parents: A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The seemingly superfluous verb “went” affords the Rabbis an opening to tell us what else occurred at that time. They tell us that the marriage referred to in Exodus 2:1 between Amram and Yocheved (Moses’ father and mother Yocheved, who are not so named until Exodus 6: 20) was their second marriage to one another. “Went” eludes to the end of their first marriage and subsequent remarriage, events that unspool from the imagination of the sages.
Upon hearing Pharaoh’s decree that not only the midwives, but all the Egyptians were charged with killing every male Hebrew born, Amram declared that bringing children into the world is done to no avail because they will all be killed. He therefore divorced Yocheved to forestall the murder of more infants. His adolescent daughter Miriam, however, takes a longer view of history and deeper view of their situation than her father. Miriam challenges Amram’s decision with a remarkable three-pronged argument that she introduces with the shocking declaration that her father’s “decree” is more cruel—yes, more cruel—than Pharaoh’s decree.
Miriam’s first point is that while Pharaoh’s decree concerns only boys, Amram’s decision to avoid procreation means that girls who would have been born will also be denied life. Second, Pharaoh’s dreadful decree denies baby boys life in this world, but even if killed by the Egyptians, each would enjoy a full portion of life in the world-to-come; children who are never born, however, have no portion in the world-to-come. Finally, Miriam argues that it is not a given that everyone will obey Pharaoh’s decree—and we already know that the midwives are among those who flagrantly subvert his orders—but since Amram is a righteous and respected leader among the Hebrews, people will surely follow his lead and emulate his behavior. To reinforce her point, Miriam cites a verse from the Book of Job in which Eliphaz assures Job that if he repents, God will insure that what Job decrees comes to pass. Perhaps this is meant as a hinting that if Amram repents his decision to divorce Yocheved, his desire (decree) to have a son who survives will come to pass. Upon hearing Miriam’s carefully constructed three-point thesis, Amram takes Yocheved back in marriage. The result is the birth of Moses.
Anna Berman, interned in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz during WW II, conceived two children in the camps with her husband. She describes her experience in the Holocaust as a world in which the sexual behaviors that promoted her survival by making her feel alive and human also placed her and children who might result at great risk.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Adults consider it their role and responsibility to teach and lead children. In the story above, the Rabbis attribute to adolescent Miriam the insight, courage, and wisdom to teach her father. Is there a message here about recognizing and honoring children’s wisdom? When have you seem children exhibit exceptional courage and wisdom?
- The decision to bring children into a world in which they are likely to suffer and, worse, die young is excruciatingly fraught. During the Holocaust, not only children, but pregnant women’s lives were at enormous risk. (See Anna Berman above.) If you had lived in Egypt, or in a situation where being pregnant or bringing a pregnancy to term was life-threatening, what would you do? Does it take special courage to bring life into the world in such situations? Is doing so an affirmation of life or a foolish risk?
- The story implies that had it not been for Miriam, Moses would never have been born. Does this suggest that Miriam is responsible for the continuation—and redemption—of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt? Does it suggest that redemption may come from an unexpected source?