Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )
Shemos, 2:4: “His sister stood (titatsev) at a distance to know what would be done with him.”
Mishna, Sotah, 9b: “…Miriam waited for Moshe for one hour, as it says, ‘his sister stood at a distance’, therefore Yisrael waited for her for seven days in the desert, as it says, ‘And the people did not travel until Miriam was brought in.1’”
After the birth of Moshe, his mother, Yocheved hides him for three months from the Egyptians who want to kill every male baby. After that time, she can no longer hide him, so she places him in a basket and puts it in the River Nile. The Torah then tells us that Moshe’s sister, Miriam, remains standing at the Nile to see what would happen to Moshe. The Gemara states that she was rewarded for this act many years later when she was punished with tsoraat (a kind of disease that is no longer extant) for speaking negatively about Moshe. She was quarantined for seven days, but God instructed the people to stop travelling and wait the seven days for her. This was a measure for measure reward for the fact that she waited to see what would happen to Moshe.
The obvious question that arises is why was the fact that she waited for Moshe such a praiseworthy action, when she seemingly just wanted to see what would happen to him. She may have been motivated by curiosity or concern, but either way, why was this waiting so great that, in its merit, the entire nation waited for her for seven days in the desert?
In order to answer this question, it is first necessary to outline the background to this moment as described by the Gemara2. Miriam’s father, Amram, was the leader of the Jewish people. When he heard Pharaoh's decree to throw all the male babies into the Nile, he decided that it was better not to have male children who would just be killed, so he divorced his wife, Yocheved. The rest of the nation followed his example and each man divorced his wife. Miriam told her father that his decree was worse than Pharaoh's decree because Pharaoh's decree was only directed at the males, while Amram's actions would also prevent the birth of girls. Amram listened to the advice of his daughter and remarried Yocheved in a public ceremony so that everyone would emulate him and remarry the wives that they had divorced. Yocheved soon became pregnant and when Moshe was born, the house filled with light. Amram kissed Miriam on the forehead and told her ‘Your prophecy has been fulfilled’. However, when Moshe was thrown into the Nile in the basket, Amram slapped Miriam on the forehead and asked, ‘Now what happened to your 'great prophecy'?
Based on this background, Rabbi Yissachar Frand asserts that the reward that Miriam later received was not just for standing at the Nile, but it was for her steadfast Faith (Emunah) and refusal to give up hope when the situation seemed totally lost. It seems that her maintaining hope was the key to her future reward.
The Izhbitzer Rebbe3 expresses a beautiful idea that demonstrates the importance of keeping hope. The law is that if one loses an object and gives up hope of ever getting it back (ye’ush), then the person who finds the object is entitled to keep it. However, as long as a person has not given up hope of recovering his lost object then the finder is not allowed to keep it. The Izhbitzer Rebbe explains that a person's hope is the only thing that connects him to that object. He has lost possession and he cannot use it and his hope alone still binds him to the object. Once a person gives up hope, he has severed any connection he had to the lost object and therefore, the finder can then keep it. The Izhbitzer Rebbe continues that this is why it so destructive to give up hope. As Rabbi Frand explains: “Whatever the situation, as long as one keeps his hope alive, there remains a potential cure, or a potential redemption, or a potential salvation to the crises. One must maintain hope in order to have a chance to see that salvation come to fruition. Had Miriam given up hope, then the last connection to the future deliverance of the Jewish people would have been severed. This is why her act of faith was so crucial”.
Indeed, it seems that Miriam’s stubborn refusal to give up hope had a direct effect on the course of events that resulted in Moshe’s survival. When the daughter of Pharaoh picked him out of the river, she tried to have the non-Jewish women nurse him, but Moshe refused to drink from their milk.4 Because Miriam remained watching what would happen, she saw that Moshe would not drink, and so she approached the daughter of Pharaoh and suggested that a Jewish woman could nurse him. Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, and Miriam brought Moshe’s own mother, Yocheved, to nurse him. Thus, we see that Miriam’s steadfastness played a key role in the chain of events in Moshe’s survival and upbringing.
Miriam’s example teaches us the importance of remaining steadfast in our Emunah. This applies both in a general sense and on a more personal level: In a general sense, it teaches us the importance of keeping faith that the Redemption will come, as predicted by the Prophets. This is not merely a praiseworthy attitude, as is demonstrated by the fact that the Rambam includes it in one of the thirteen Principles of Faith. The Gemara5 states that one of the first questions a person will be asked in the Next World is, ‘Tsipita LeYeshua’ – did you anticipate the Redemption? The Smak6 asks why this is so important, as there is no explicit Mitzva to anticipate the Redemption. He explains that it is part of the Mitzva of Emunah, as included in that Mitzva is the belief that the world was created for a Purpose and will reach that purpose.
idea also applies on a personal level, whenever a person is in a situation where there seems little hope, the story of Miriam and Moshe can remind him that there are many ways that God can save us from the seemingly most hopeless situations.
- Bamidbar, 12:15.
- Sotah, 12b-13a.
- Cited by Rav Frand.
- Shemos, 2:7, Rashi, Dh: Min haivriyot
- Shabbos, 31a.
- Smak, Mitzva 1.