The confrontational face of Miriam
When we are first introduced to Miriam in the Bible, the times are bleak. The Egyptian Pharaoh has decreed that all baby boys born to the Hebrew slaves be immediately put to death. This is an edict or gezera to be carried out by the midwives. Judging it best not to “beget children for nothing,” Miriam’s father, Amram, separates from his wife, leading the rest of the Hebrew husbands to do the same. Nothing less than national survival is at stake.
At that time, Miriam is only a child. But her vision surpasses that of her father Amram who is a recognized leader. Miriam steps up to rebuke and educate her father when she urges him not to capitulate to Pharaoh’s edict or gezera, but rather to resume marital relations in spite of it. Her father understands that this girl–child has the better part of wisdom and he promptly remarries his wife Yochevet encouraging all the other Hebrews to remarry and procreate as well.
In her book Particulars of Rapture, The Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg sees the exchange between Miriam and her father as an expression of opposing worldviews – the gezera versus the anti-gezera mentalities. Like all decrees, Pharaoh’s gezera (which Amram unwittingly supports) is actually a calcified way of viewing the world. From the gezera point of view, “Reality is perceived in freeze-frame mode. Things are what they are, what they must be.” Zornberg goes on to say, “The way of those who live in the gezera mode is to limit knowledge, vulnerability, empathy.” To be a victim of the gezera perspective is to say no to all possibility. Zornberg likens it to inhabiting Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, suggesting you will “expire before redemption comes.” Acquiescing to gezera is to give up rather than to let go into change, creativity, hope or transformation.
Miriam comes to challenge gezera mode with her redemptive idea of speaking up, risk-taking and allowing for the positive evolution of a bad situation. Although credited with prophetic powers, the little girl Miriam never claims to know what exactly will happen. As spokeswoman for the anti-gezera mode, she is willing to take a chance even in the absence of defined reality, even or especially, in a critical matter of national survival. In Zornberg’s words, it is young Miriam who “waiting on knowledge, anticipates the maturation of a vision.”
I thrill to the discovery that there is somewhere in our texts an example of an authoritative father bowing to the vision and courage of his little daughter. I champion Miriam’s anti-gezera activism. But there remains a seamy underside to this tale that highlights the ambivalence – even the hostility - with which her provocation is received by the establishment. Miriam insures the survival of the Jewish people and sets the angels dancing. But as we will see, her anti-gezera attitude is held against her throughout her life.
The seed is sown in another midrash which reveals one of the reasons why the midwives who defy Pharaoh’s edict are mentioned by name. One of them, Puah, was really Miriam in disguise. Zornberg reminds us not to overlook the reason Miriam was given this particular code name. Puah means “lifting up of the face,” a gesture that is understood as an act of defiance. Miriam educates and inspires her father. Inevitably, because of the social structure in which she must operate, she also defies him, much as she now defies Pharaoh by saving the baby boys.
The confrontational face of Miriam-Puah makes a surprise reappearance in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 12. In this incident, a grown-up Miriam, along with her brother Aaron, protests the exclusivity of Moses’ leadership. This greatly angers God and though her brother Aaron shares her cause, only Miriam is smitten with a terrible skin disease. Moses pleads with God to heal her and receives a startling response. God replies to Moses in Number 12/14: If her father had spit in her face would she not be shamed for seven days?
Once again we see a reference to Miriam’s confrontational face. But in this unsettling case, God refers to it as an appropriate target for the punitive spittle of an outraged father. The verb to spit - yarok yarak - while emphasized in its repetition, is here only invoked in a hypothetical form. God says – If her father had spit in her face. I pick up on a reference to a time in the past when her father might have - could have, possibly should have - spit in her face, but did not.
We now have a double reference to a confrontational face and it is the face that thematically ties these two incidents together. One is Miriam-Puah’s face uplifted in (bravery and) defiance and one is the afflicted face of Miriam, now serving as a potential target of paternal censure. As a child, Miriam is tolerated, even lauded for her anti-gezera provocation. But in Numbers, when she is all grown up, she is treated like a repeat offender. When she once again speaks up, this time in a far edgier instance of defiance, God makes a veiled reference to her controversial and non-expiated past.
We are hitting upon a core tension in our tradition, the ongoing dialectic between the conservative and the progressive that persists throughout our history. It is a tension that inevitably weaves its way into our own personal stories.
While Miriam, as individual and leader of a women’s anti-gezera brigade, is celebrated, she is never granted full leadership stature in the mainstream. She consistently acts against a mighty current of political resistance. Moses, and sometimes God, lift up their voices in anger against her call for the transformation of the gezera mentality. Harshly, they even hint at spitting in her confrontational face. Miriam and other catalysts of change play a vital role in our narrative of redemption. But they will always incite the anger of those who are not yet ready to receive their words.