My mother’s mother died long before I was born, so I never met my grandmother. She seems to have been some sort of goddess. She never raised her voice, never had a blemish or a wrinkle, equally loved three very different children, created a stable home in spite of her husband’s gambling addiction, spoke perfect English though an immigrant, etc. Her name was Leah and yes, as her namesake, I was supposed to live up to her legacy.
In the tradition of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), wisdom is a female figure. In the book of Mishlei (Proverbs), Wisdom herself tells us that she was God’s first creation, standing by God’s side, as an omen: a great artisan and a hidden nanny (Prov. 8:22, 30; Gen. R. 1:1). Torah confirms Wisdom’s claim: even before light is created, a feminine entity called ruach Elohim, a divine spirit, hovers over the waters (Gen. 1:2).
But Wisdom is not just a cosmic force. She exists in real life, too, in the figure of eshet chayil, the virtuous woman (Prov. 31:10-31). Eshet chayil speaks wisdom, inspires trust, feeds the poor, educates children, does well in business, makes clothing, etc. She herself wears royal purple, a sign of her spiritual majesty. Eshet chayil is kind of like my grandmother, who lived on majestically in her daughter’s imagination.
When Parshat Ki Tissa introduces Betzalel, lead artisan of the mishkan (portable wilderness sanctuary), Wisdom’s gender identity seems to slide. God says, “I have filled Betzalel with divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge” (Ex. 31:3). Really? Divine spirit and wisdom? Actualized in a male character? By what gender-bending miracle does Betzalel merit this filling?
Why, the answer should be obvious! He received the wisdom transmitted by his great-grandmother – who happens to be none other than Miriam.
As we will see, however, the answer is not obvious at all. It follows a path of midrashic interpretation as intricate as the design of the mishkan itself.
Miriam’s story begins in Egypt. As the Torah tells it, Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives (miyaldot ha’ivriot), Shifra and Pua, to kill newborn baby boys. Of course, the midwives do no such thing. They appear before Pharaoh to explain why not, telling a story about birthing stones. Their risk pays off: Pharaoh does not know enough about birthing babies to question the story. And because the midwives fear God, God makes houses for them (Ex. 1:15-21).
Although Shifra and Pua sound like Egyptian names, midrash insists that these two midwives were Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam. Even Pharaoh’s daughter knew that. When she sees baby Moshe floating by, she says, this is the midwives’ baby (meiyelidei ha’ivrim) (Ex. 2:6; Waxman, 2004). Shifra and Pua, it turns out, were affectionate nicknames, celebrating these midwives’ special skills. Yocheved, a.k.a. Shifra, would wash the babies, making them beautiful (mishaperet) (Ex. R. 1:13). Miriam, a.k.a. Pua, perhaps too young to handle the infants, would calm the birthing mothers, making musical sounds with her mouth (peh) (Koh. R. 7:3). After the midwives defiantly appeared before Pharaoh, little Miriam was honored with yet another name, Efrat, “The One Who Helped Us be Fruitful and Multiply (peru u’revu).” (Ex. R. 1:17).
The houses God makes for these great women, midrash says, are not buildings. These houses are families, legacies, and dynasties. Through her son Moshe, a “king in Yeshurun” (Deut. 33:5), Yocheved becomes matriarch of a royal house. Through her son Aharon, she becomes matriarch of a priestly house. Miriam, in her own right, becomes matriarch of the house of Wisdom (Ex. R. 48:4).
As the Torah tells it, Miriam never marries. Narratives never mention a husband, and genealogies name no children (e.g., Num. 26:49). But midrashic thinkers could not imagine that someone so great as Miriam would leave no lineage. They theorize that Miriam marries a leader with skills like hers: brave inspirational speaker Calev from the tribe of Judah, of whom it is said, “Calev married Efrat” (I Chron. 2:19; Ex. R. 48:4). Together, they parent Chur, who parents Uri, who parents Betzalel. From his great-grandmother Miriam, an eshet chayil who speaks wisdom, inspires trust, waters the thirsty, saves children’s lives, helps lead a nation, makes music and more, Betzalel receives wisdom: artistic wisdom, interpersonal wisdom, and organizational wisdom. With this wisdom, he builds a house that makes God present to all.
In her youth, Betzalel’s great-grandmother did some amazing things. Many were womanly things: helping babies, leading women, nourishing people in need. These actions created a spiritual lifestyle of wisdom, understanding, knowledge that shaped multiple generations. Maybe your grandmother, too, did small acts of kindness with great repercussions. Maybe she built a legacy that you hold, whether you knew her personally or not. For the sake of Miriam, honour your grandmother’s wisdom.
A dvar Torah (sermon) offered at Or Shalom Synagogue in honour of International Women’s Day 2015. Appropriate for both Ki Tissa and Vayakhel-Pekudei!