Their morale had never been lower. Their need for vision and unwavering support was never greater. Amazingly, the one who would offer it did not fit the role of archetype leader. Still, she seized the opportunity to make a difference and lead her people at a most crucial time in their young history.
One half century following Yosef’s death, Miriam was born as the eldest child to Amram and Yocheved. Her parents were distinguished persons from the tribe of Levi, generational leaders for their burgeoning nation. In the short period following the passing of Yaakov’s sons, their people had been increasingly subjected to the rigors and oppression of harsh slavery in Egypt. The servitude intensified around the time of Miriam’s birth, and would remain at that augmented level until her nation’s liberation some 85 years later.
Already at a young age, Miriam played a significant role in countering the effects of the Egyptian oppression. She and her mother, midwives by trade, saved countless male Jewish babies in the face of a royal decree that had directed them to cast those infants into the Nile. The midwives defended their conduct to Pharaoh by asserting that Jewish women naturally birthed quickly, greatly diminishing their capacity to kill the children.
It was not enough that Miriam defied the mighty monarch. She also took a stand against her father Amram, the leading generational sage, after he voluntarily divorced her mother Yocheved. Amram’s action was reasonable enough; once he learned of Pharaoh’s wicked decree, he decided that he would bring no more children into the world. All of the men followed his example and summarily divorced their wives as well.
Young Miriam vehemently objected. Despite her youth, she saw farther and possessed greater conviction and trust than even her great father. She knew that having children was the ultimate life-affirming act and understood that her people could not allow Pharaoh to break their spirit or destroy their will. She was also convinced that Hashem would redeem them. Miriam complained to her father that his action was much harsher than Pharaoh’s edict. The Egyptian ruler had decreed against the males, while her father was guaranteeing that no Jewish child would be born at all.
From Miriam’s perspective, the Jewish men were doing Pharaoh’s job for him. In preventing the birth of any Jewish children, they were making it far too easy for the Egyptians. Why assume that they would find and kill every Jewish male baby? Perhaps some would survive and perpetuate their nation! Amram relented and remarried Yocheved. Moshe, the future Jewish savior, was the product of that reunion. All the other Jewish men followed his example and reunited with their wives.
Later, we find Miriam positioned along the banks of the Nile, carefully watching over her newborn brother Moshe as he floated downstream in a reed basket. The baby had drawn significant Egyptian attention, particularly at a time when royal astrologers had predicted the imminent birth of the future Jewish savior. Yocheved had hidden him for three months until she could conceal him no longer.
In what would become one of history’s great ironies, Pharaoh’s own daughter found the floating baby as she was bathing in the Nile. Moved by compassion, she disobeyed her father’s decree and saved him, knowing full well that he was of Hebrew stock. “She opened [the basket] and she saw him, the child, and behold, he was a weeping lad, and she had compassion on him, and she said, ‘This is a Hebrew’s child’” (Shemos 2:6). Moreover, at Miriam’s recommendation, she hired a Hebrew wet nurse — Yocheved — to feed and care for the lad. After some time, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son and raised him in the royal palace.
For the next eight decades — the harshest and most oppressive years of the Jewish enslavement — the Torah shares little about Miriam. However, our tradition does tell us that Miriam remained a continued source of inspiration to other Jewish women in particular, encouraging them to bear additional offspring in the midst of hardship. By adhering faithfully to her vision of a brighter future, she infused her generation with deep trust in the coming redemption, to the point that they were prepared to bring a new generation of children into an otherwise intolerable situation.
Miriam’s inspiration to others manifested itself in other ways as well. Because of her unflappable faith, countless other women managed to think beyond their bitter reality and prepare for a brighter future filled with song and joy.
Miriam the prophetess… took the tambourine in her hand. And all the women followed her with tambourines and dances (Shemos 15:20).
How did the women of this generation know to take tambourines out of Egypt when there was barely enough time to take food? The righteous women of the generation were certain that G-d would perform miracles in the desert, so they brought the tambourines out of Egypt (Rashi, ibid.).
Miriam’s life is a model of hope in the most dire of circumstances. She understood that the harshest suffering precedes the redemption and that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn. She is also remembered as someone who was prepared to challenge the status quo — even one established by the greatest of men — in order to ensure that her vision came to fruition.
Successful leaders possess the capacity to challenge the status quo and recognize the importance of doing so. They continually seek opportunities to increase efficiency or improve other aspects of their reality or that of their enterprise. Strong leaders look for innovative ways to advance the cause, and are willing to experiment and take risks in order to identify the best way forward. They question, wonder, speculate, experiment and research. They network and connect with others, all to re-imagine and recreate their future.
Great leaders also inspire hope in others and create a shared vision of a better tomorrow. They recognize that the problems of today are ephemeral and can be overcome with the proper blend of vision, effort, desire and faith, just as they were for Miriam and her people so many years ago.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is a writer, teacher and leadership aficionado living in Passaic, NJ, with his wife and six children. He can be contacted at email@example.com.