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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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