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Miriam’s Well

            Tonight is the first night of Passover, and I’ve been thinking about how this Jewish holiday makes me feel – this weeklong commemoration of the escape from slavery to freedom – and why it doesn’t make me feel free. Maybe it’s because so much of Judaism, both in its ancient and modern forms, leaves out the stories of women; the Hebrew Bible, and the advent of Monotheism, were bathed in misogyny and the distrust and erasure of women, and that absence of women feels especially obvious at the Passover Seder.

“But I’m at the Seder.”

            People have come up with all kinds of ideas for how to make the Seder more inclusive, more fun, more meaningful, or shorter. At the yearly Women’s Seder at my synagogue we add something called a Miriam’s Cup to the table, but there was never an explanation for what the cup was meant to represent and I assumed it was an afterthought, a salve to make women feel included.

The Hebrew Bible describes Moses, and his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, as delivering the Jews from exile in Egypt, together: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Miriam’s claim to fame is that, as a child, she was the one who stood by the Nile to watch as her baby brother Moses was picked up by the daughter of Pharaoh. And then, after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, she encouraged the Israelites to sing and dance and praise God for the miracle of the splitting of the sea, even as the sea swallowed the Egyptian soldiers chasing after them in Exodus: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her to dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’”

And yet, there are very few other references to Miriam in the Hebrew Bible, and no traditional rituals to celebrate her, in the Passover Seder or elsewhere. And that made me wonder why, if she was so important, she was largely left out of the telling of the story? There’s understatement and then there’s neglect.

Even her name is a problem: Miriam is a form of the Hebrew word for “bitter.” The assumption is that her parents gave her that name because of their hard lives as slaves in Egypt, but what you call a person matters; it impacts how you see them and how they see themselves.

“What does Ellie mean?”

When used at the Seder, Miriam’s Cup sits next to Elijah’s Cup (of wine) on the table. Elijah’s cup is set aside for the Prophet Elijah to drink when he comes to visit the Seder (Elijah is like a drunken version of Santa Claus, visiting every Seder in one night, through the open door instead of the chimney, but leaving no gifts). Elijah rode a chariot of fire into the whirlwind and was “translated” to heaven, without dying, and his visits to the Seder represent the hope for the coming of the Messiah. But Miriam had her feet solidly on the ground, and she died, like any other mortal, so her placement with Elijah at the table seems strange.

And yet, in 1987, Leila Gal Berber wrote a second verse to the song we sing about Elijah the Prophet, called Miriam the Prophetess, to be sung at the Seder, and weekly at the Havdallah service that ends the Sabbath each Saturday night. Miriam’s verse celebrates her as a redeemer, like Elijah, but that has never been her role. And, to me, it feels disrespectful to act as if the only way to honor Miriam is to tack her onto Elijah’s song, where she doesn’t belong.

“Harrumph.”

Why isn’t Miriam’s role as part of the leadership team that brought the Israelites out of Egypt enough? Why can’t she be celebrated with her brothers instead of with Elijah, who comes from a completely different part of the Hebrew bible? Aaron was the high priest, and Moses spoke to God, and Miriam acted as the first Cantor or prayer leader for the Israelites, teaching a people who had been raised in slavery to celebrate their freedom. Why isn’t that good enough? Miriam, unlike Moses, grew up as a slave. She never lived the privileged life Moses lived as an adopted member of the royal family. And yet, she celebrated God, who didn’t bother to speak directly to her. She had the faith and courage to help lead her people out of Egypt, despite having no experience of freedom to bolster her faith that life on the other side would be better.

            Why can’t we celebrate her for that?

But also, I didn’t understand why Miriam would be honored with a cup of water, while Elijah was honored with a cup of wine. And I was curious enough about that to go a-googling. I found out that Miriam’s Cup is meant to remind us of Miriam’s Well, the source of water that kept the Israelites alive through forty years in the desert, a story I’d never heard growing up. It turns out that the Rashi, a Medieval French Rabbi, derived the idea of Miriam’s Well from the description of Miriam’s death in the book of Numbers: “Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation.” He decided that the juxtaposition of her death and the sudden lack of water meant that while she was alive the Israelites had water, throughout the forty years in the desert, due to her. The connection is tenuous, but some explain it as a result of Miriam’s guardianship of her baby brother by the waters of the Nile, or because of her celebration by the Sea of Reeds. Others see the well as a universal symbol of femininity, like a womb.

The Seder does seem like the right place for Miriam, and the cup of water could be made into a meaningful symbol of her role in the Exodus, because without water there is no survival, let alone freedom. Water is the most basic thing we need in order to stay alive, and yet, it is also something we tend to take for granted, like women.

There’s so much potential here, for water as a symbol of the feminine, and of freedom and survival, but it only works if we spin the story out, and if it expands from just the Women’s Seder (which takes place weeks before the actual holiday) to being included in the official Seders on the first and second nights of Passover; where everyone is included, and everyone can hear.

The story of Miriam’s Well can teach the importance of having water in the desert, and having a sister who looks out for you, and having a prayer leader who reminds you to sing and dance and celebrate, even when you are afraid. There is another song about Miriam, by Debbie Friedman, that celebrates the way Miriam led the singing and dancing after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, which is sometimes sung at the Women’s Seder as well. Maybe if we can sing her song and tell her story at the Seder, Miriam can inspire us to add women back into our history and restore what has been erased. And, maybe then Passover will feel like a true expression of freedom, an experience of being free to speak and to be who we are, for all of us.

“Like us.”

This is a version of Debbie Friedman’s Miriam’s Song, by Project Kesher, working to empower Jewish women around the world – https://www.kveller.com/this-cover-of-debbie-friedmans-miriams-song-is-so-inspiring/?fbclid=IwAR3akG-p4sTMYJUpEGq9gG76U8HdfXctfVlRe_I09L-Oh6MRplAlEozF5UI

This is a version of Min Hameitzar, which is often sung as part of Passover services. The words translate, basically, to: From the narrow place I called on God and he answered me in the expanse. God is for me, I won’t fear, what can Man do to me? - https://youtu.be/EMe4-ggSkdY

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

81 responses »

  1. You should read the book of longings by sue monk Kidd, you will love it

    Reply
  2. Yup:
    hence, the orange on the seder plate…

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    • I put the orange in my Passover jeopardy game for my students. No one got the answer right, but now they’ll remember it for the future.

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      • Cool!
        Yes, they will!

        So that is why games are useful!
        I never quite understood that, when I was teaching in the classroom.
        Thank you, Rachel, and
        Chag Kasher ve Sameach,
        Stay safe,
        -Shira

  3. As a Christian, I take the water as pointing to the New Testament- washing away of sins in the act of baptism. We see water being used throughout this story, pointing to future salvation in Christ- Moses (chosen) taken out of the water, the Israelites being led through the waters of the red sea. Miriam is absolutely an essential part of this story. From my understanding, Miriam had a dream from the Lord that her parents would have a 3rd child who would lead his people out of Egypt. She is the one who found her baby brother at the Nile when the princess took compassion on Moses. Miriam enters the scene and asks if the princess would like her to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby, and her mother is quickly brought in and paid wages to nurse her own child. Only God could have performed such a miraculous act. I find the whole story amazing. She is absolutely a faithful follower of the Lord. Her story shows faithfulness despite great recognition of praise. She was a humble woman who worshiped God and played an intricate and necessary role in these events. Despite her circumstances or the culture’s view of women, she was needed and used by the Lord for His purposes. I was unfamiliar with the well story as well. I will look into that. Thanks for sharing all of this about Miriam. I have a friend with the name, and it reminds me of this story. Blessings from God to you and yours during passover.

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  4. I did not know of this important part of women’s history. Miriam should be celebrated more and better known by Christians like myself. As for the position of women in Christianity it is about the same as what you find in Jewish history. I was brought up Catholic but I am not practicing now. That is a religion that has not done well by woman. The treatment of women is one of the reasons I parted ways with Catholic church. Thanks for this post and Best Wishes for a peaceful Passover.

    Reply
    • I think it’s important to keep looking at why women were erased from these stories, because it’s still happening today. If we can take the lessons of faith and courage and community from the Passover and use them to build our own voices then we are on our way to something more free.

      Reply
    • As a Christian, I don’t identify as Catholic, but going to directly to God’s Word breaks all cultural norms. The first people to find Jesus’ tomb empty were women. Whether a pastor or leader in the church talks on this or not, doesn’t negate the fact that it is there and it is true and powerful. To actually see this in God’s Word itself is counter cultural because women were never written about in regards to great events in history, unless it were absolutely true. In the Old Testament, Moses was afraid and kept second guessing on returning to Egypt- the Lord was angry with him. If it weren’t for Zipporah, his wife circumsizing their son (why Moses hadn’t done it by this point shows his identity crisis and lack of faith), the Lord would have killed Moses. She outwardly committed to what God had called Moses and their family to- returning to Egypt to free the Israelites. Because of her act of trust and commitment, the Lord left Moses alone (Exodus 4:24-26). No one talks about this, but it’s a key part to the story! Going into God’s Word, we see women used in miraculous and faithful ways. On another note, I’ve enjoyed watching “The Chosen” series, as it goes into some of the stories of women who followed Jesus. If you haven’t watched it, they are airing episodes free this week, and Easter they are starting season 2. It is the #1 crowd funded series to date. I’ve never seen any show done so well in regards to sharing truth. God bless!

      Reply
  5. Thanks, I only knew about Miriam watching her baby brother from Sunday school. Now I shall remember her this week.

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  6. Thank you for telling us Miriam’s story. She was a true hero, and her story should be told more widely and more often. By drinking water from her cup, we honor her, because water is life. I listened to both songs and found them inspiring, even though I didn’t understand the words to the second one.

    Reply
  7. “…go a-googling.”
    💟💟💟💟💟

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  8. Thank you for recognizing Miriam. My community, Or Ha Lev (a Jewish Renewal congregation) honored Miriam during our (Zoom) Seder. This year, as in years past, my Rabbi (a lady) has included an orange in the middle of the Seder plate. The idea originated with Susannah Heschel (daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – “The Sabbath”) as way to recognize women, along with members of the LGBTQ community. The symbolism has been extended to recognize other marginalized people around the world, especially poignant at a time we remember our own liberation from a narrow place.

    Reply
  9. Happy Passover. If you believe today is one of many reminders of goodness . Nice read.
    Stay Safe&Smart 💕

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  10. This was very interesting. I didn’t know all this about Miriam, but her story definitely deserves to be told. The song was very good.

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  11. Thanks for these insights, Rachel.

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  12. Chag Pesach kasher vesame’ach! This is a difficult time to celebrate, but I hope you still have a happy Passover, Rachel!

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  13. Thanks for raising these questions about Miriam’s story. Seems to me you have the makings of your next novel here. You should write the story of Miriam that you’d like to read.

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  14. Pingback: Honoring Miriam, Women, and Marginalized People Everywhere – Janusz Korczak – Pediatrician, Writer, Educator, Orphanage Director, and Children's Advocate

  15. agingfaithandcreativity

    I also hope you have a happy Passover!

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  16. A wonderful piece, so full of insight. Thank you.

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  17. Fascinating story as always Rachel, thank you so much.

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  18. 🤗🍀🍀🍀🍀

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  19. I was talking with a friend about patriarchy last night and then read your blog this morning. Your line, “And yet, she celebrated God, who didn’t bother to speak directly to her” may not be correct because it was probably recorded by men who did not include how God spoke directly to Miriam. I prefer to believe that God spoke to her throughout her life, which gave her the courage to lead. Happy Passover.

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  20. Always interesting to read more about the history and traditions of your religion, Rachel.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  21. Unfortunately, women often take a back seat to the “deeds’ of men, especially in religious events. I worked for a man who was head of a local Bible students chapter, which had international ties. When I would proofread pamphlets for upcoming events, I noticed that all the main speakers were men, voicing their interpretations of the Scriptures. Later I got the feeling of a more chauvinistic air with these groups. Anyway, nice reading your post, Rachel.
    Art

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  22. Thank you again, Rachel, for sharing your Jewish culture. Your insightful thoughts are so interesting and engaging. I appreciate your words. 😍

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  23. A wonderful post for Women’s History Month – you can’t get much better than Miriam’s story.

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  24. Reblogged this on alkaplan and commented:
    Happy Passover

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  25. Have a wonderful Passover, Rachel! ❤

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  26. Passover blessings, Rachel!!

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  27. Great persective on Miriam’s story and the how the role of women has been ignored.

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  28. As a Christian, I am constantly reminded that Jesus came through a woman. No woman, no Jesus. No matter how the church has tried to make itself about men, it will always fail. Happy Passover–a little late.

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  29. An excellent post throughout. I love your description of Elijah as a sort of drunken Santa Clause. Hilarious!

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  30. Always interesting to read another writer’s perspective of the world. I always learn something new. Yours is a place I plan to visit again. Be well.

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  31. First I’d heard of the Miriam’s Cup tradition. Happy Pesach, Rachel!

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  32. I always appreciate you sharing your thoughts on your faith.

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  33. I resonate with this piece, and I loved the Miriam song. I suffer from an eating disorder that started as anorexia, went to bulemia and landed in a stubborn compulsion to eat when I’m in any kind of pain. One problem compounds other problems, all interrelated.
    As it happens I had a horrible fat day because a friend told me I should use my weight as a reason to get a motorized wheel chair as opposed to a hand-pushed. She said to tell him I’m too fat to wheel up a slight incline to my apartment.
    I was devastated.
    After I cried I breathed a sigh of relief. The elephant was out of the living room.. The truth was told.
    Distortions were minimal.
    Then I read this post and felt like I’m not alone in having a painful relationship with food. It relieved my brain the way the crying relieved the pain of being told I was fat.
    Thank you for your honesty.
    It heals.

    Reply

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