Miriam the Priestess

This midrash was written by Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser over the course of several years, and the ending was found as the the story was shared during the first ever gathering of the Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute.

Find this and more in Ruby Red Seeds: a collection of poetry, prayer, and midrash.

Miriam awoke from the vision and couldn’t move. Such a short time ago she had been a slave. A slave who spoke to G!d/dess, but a slave none the less. Then Moses arrived, and she became Miriam, prophetess, sister of Moses the redeemer. When Aharon had been chosen to speak for Moses, she understood. He was the eldest after all, but it had always been clear that Miriam stood equally with her brothers; Aharon ministered to the men and Miriam to the women. Now in the desert, she is to become the Priestess – keeper of the mishkan, the sacred temple of the Presence. 

“I must not speak of this to anyone,” Miriam said to herself. “Now is not the time to boast. This is an unimaginable burden. It’s a sacrifice, and I am willing to make it, but G!d/dess will reveal it to all when the time is right.” With that, Miriam left her tent and headed to the well for water. That night Moses’ father-in-law and family would be joining them in the camp.[i] 

Time passed as it always does, and Miriam went about her daily life as before, but with renewed purpose. She ministered to the women as always, and began to actively listen more to the men. She also worked to better know and support Moses’ wife Tzipporah. As Tzipporah was a foreigner with different ways, she had a difficult time finding friends and comfort in the camp. Miriam wanted her to feel at home with Moses’ people, and so she dedicated herself to helping her new sister. 

Day after day Miriam and Tzipporah would walk the camp, talking to everyone. Tzipporah, as Moses’ wife, had a place of great honor in the community, even if her strange ways were confusing to people. But people in the camp began to gossip about how Moses was infrequently seen in his tent or with his wife. Miriam knew that this type of gossip could disrupt the fragile community and decided to speak to Tzipporah about it. 

“Sister Miriam, I almost never see my husband. I know the role he plays and the burdens that have been placed upon him, so I don’t wish to complain,” Tzipporah explained. “My fear is that people will not see me as his wife if he never is with me, but rather as a stranger – a Cushite and nothing more. I worry for my sons,” she continued fighting back tears. 

Miriam watched her sweet sister-in-law struggle with the words and her feelings. She saw how difficult life in the Israelite camp must be for her. 

“Tzipporah, I will speak to Moses for you. He must remember that no matter how great a leader he is, that he is also a husband. That too is a vow to G!d/dess that he should honor. Aharon and I also must balance our duties to G!d/dess and the community with our duties to our families. While Moses’ burdens may be greater, he still must provide a future his wife and sons.” 

Then the day came when a new buzz ran through the camp. All around her Miriam heard people talking about how Aharon and his sons had been honored with the priesthood forever more. Miriam’s head swam, and a tiny seed of doubt almost crept in — but she new that the vision would come true as they always did. Time passed as it always does, and chatter in the camp grew louder. Now people were not just talking about Tzipporah, but also the fear that Aharon’s wife and his sons’ wives had that they too would be cast aside by their husbands. Miriam realized that no further delay could happen. She must now speak to Moses and Aharon about Tzipporah and the other wives, and she pushed aside any other doubts and focused on that issue.[ii] 

At first light, she went and spoke with her brother Aharon. Unlike Moses, whom they had only been reunited with recently, Miriam and Aharon had been close since they were children. She shared her concerns with him about how Moses was treating his wife and sons and the gossip she had heard in the camp. He was disturbed by her report, but distracted as he was trying to organize his sons and take on the mantle of the Priesthood. He agreed to go to Moses with her and stand with her on this issue. But in truth, Aharon had other things on his mind than the gossip of women and the concerns of his sister. No matter how much he respected and loved her, he now had the mantle of great responsibility upon him and that was his first concern. 
That night Miriam and Aharon met with Moses at the appointed time. Miriam took a deep breath and spoke from her heart. She expressed her concern about how Moses was treating his wife and sons. She shared the words of the other women in the camp and their fears about how their husbands would treat them. She reminded him that he had married a Cushite woman, a stranger, and he must understand how the others still treat her as a foreigner. Miriam, with Aharon at her side said, “Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? hath He not spoken also with us?’[iii] 
It was in that moment she noticed that Aharon had moved just a few steps away from her; distancing himself from her. Miriam grew angry. She felt indignant that her brother had stolen her birthright as priestess of the people and was now not supporting her in protecting the women. For just a moment she forgot that time passes as it always does — and the vision would come true, as they always do.  
She doubted. 
And YHVH saw. 
And the cloud of the Presence descended on the tent of meeting and the three were called to the threshold. 
And YHVH said, “Hear now My words: Miriam and Aharon are my prophets, but I speak to you in vision and dreams.  You know that with My servant Moses this is not so; he is trusted in all My house; with him I speak directly, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and my likeness  he even has seen.  Wherefore are you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?”[iv]  
YHVH continued, “You wish to be what Moses is before I am ready for you to be so – before you are ready to receive it? You, Miriam chosen among women, doubt your place that I have shown you? Have you forgotten that it is I who control the calendar and things will come to pass at my leisure? So be it. Now, before you can dream of being ready — have what you wish.” 
And Miriam was struck with pain like none she had ever known and her flesh turned scaly and white.  
Moses cried out in horror, knowing full well the pain that Miriam felt for he had felt this himself before the burning bush at Mt. Horeb, “Please G!d/dess, heal her. Not my sister. Not Miriam. She meant no harm. Please G!d/dess, heal her.” [v] 
But YHVH was set and Miriam would survive and become as Moses, or die in the process. 
Moses and Aharon removed Miriam from the camp and brought her to the desert. She screamed in pain like one giving birth and ordered them to leave her. For seven days she fought to give birth to this new self. She knew she must or die. For seven days, she toiled alone in the desert, stumbling blindly along. At the end of the sixth day, as light turned to night, just as three stars appeared in the sky her well appeared before her. She stepped into the well and submerged herself, plunging three times into the waters. With each submersion, her skin healed a bit more and her sight cleared. As she left the mikvah in the desert she turned and saw her reflection in the water. Her face looked as Moses’ did, shining with the light of the Presence and her hair which had been just showing a touch of gray before now glowed white in the moonlight. At last she felt new, whole, reborn and turned to walk back to the camp. 

And Miriam saw truth.  

Because she doubted, she would not live to see her daughters as leaders of the tribe, some day when the time was right, the stewardship of the Temple would pass on to her children. She saw it clear as day. She saw that Moses and Aharon would not be allowed to enter the promised land because of their doubts, so this was only fair.[vi] The time when the daughters of Miriam and the sons of Aharon would share the responsibility of the tribe equally. As she walked back to the camp she sang a wordless tune and thought to herself, “time will pass as it always does and, the vision would come true as they always do.” There was not a hint of doubt anywhere in her being. 

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  • [i] Exodus 18:1 –27 
  • [ii] Sefer Ha-Aggadah 728:61 
  • [iii] Numbers 12:2 (Parasha Beha’alotcha)
  • [iv] Numbers 12:6-8
  • [v] Numbers 12:13 
  • [vi] Numbers 20:12