“I took you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage. I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4).
Miriam does not seem very significant in Exodus. We see her in only two stories: she watches her brother drift in the river and she gets the women to dance after the splitting of the sea. In this verse in Micah she acquires a more significant status alongside her two brothers, Moses and Aaron, the central characters in the story of leaving Egypt. Why does Micah place her there? What is her role?
Rashi reacts to the novelty of this verse. Basing himself on the Targum Yonatan, he answers that Miriam is the teacher to the women. This answer, however, requires explanation. What does she teach the women? A full answer is beyond the scope of these few paragraphs but we can explore this a little.
There is a famous midrash in Sota 12a which speaks of the oppression in Egypt. Miriam’s father Amram, as a result of the decree against the sons (that they should be killed) decides to divorce his wife so no sons will be born. Amram is the leader in his generation, so the rest of the men do the same. This could have been the end! But a six-year-old Miriam objects that while Pharoah decreed on the males, Amram has decreed on the girls too. Amram listens to his daughter and remarries his wife. The rest of the men follow suit. There are more midrashim of her role in the hard times in Egypt. For instance, in the midrash, Puah (one of the midwives who save the Jewish people) is Miriam.
A common thread that can be seen in these stories is a fight for the continuation of the Jewish people, especially in hard times. Enslavement is not only hard on a physical plane, it is also hard spiritually, sapping our belief in G-d and leading us to doubt that redemption will ever come. It becomes hard for us to preserve our motivation to continue life. Miriam stands up to this challenge.
This has also been said of the women of her generation. In several midrashim we read that it was the women that enable us to survive in Egyptand to leave Egypt. Women are obligated like men to perform the commandments of Passover (even though it is a time-bound mitzvah, which they are usually not obligated in). Tosafot in Pesahim 108a-b explains that this is not only because they were saved in the miracle. The miracle happened because of them! Is Miriam one among her generation, with the normal “women’s reaction” to the situation, or does she serve as a role model for her generation?
The answer may be here: “And Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took a drum in her hand; and all the women went out after her with drums and dancing” (Exodus 15:20). How is it that they remember their drums when they don’t have time to leaven the bread? Rashi, quoting the midrash, states that they are confident in G-d that he will perform miracles and good deeds for them when they leave Egypt so they prepare the instruments. This shows great faith in G-d and a great desire to rejoice in Him. Drums are more important then bread. We also see the relationship between Miriam and the women of her time. She does and the women come after. We see that Miriam believes that we will survive as a Jewish people no matter what. The added beauty in Miriam is a seeming transference of this belief to the women of her generation – hence the term used – “teacher of the women”.