Miriam's Cup

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Children who’ve grown up in a shul with a woman rabbi on the bimah are so accustomed to the sight that some are prone to ask, “Can men be rabbis?” So, too, children who’ve grown up with two special goblets on the seder table – Elijah’s Cup filled with wine and Miriam’s Cup with water – consider that sight so “normal” that the absence of her cup would seem as serious an omission as the absence of maror on the seder plate.

In relation to Jewish time, the wide acceptance of Miriam’s Cup as a legitimate ritual object has come to pass in the blink of an eye; it originated in a Boston Rosh Chodesh group in the 1980s, the invention of a woman named Stephanie Loo, who filled it with Mayim Chayim – Living Waters – and used it in a feminist ceremony of guided meditation.

Since then, potters, ceramicists, glassblowers, and silversmiths have created beautiful cups imprinted with Miriam’s name, many of which are sold at Judaica stores, synagogue and JCC gift shops and Jewish Art Fairs. And today, Miriam’s Cups (or a large Kiddush cup designated as hers) grace the seder tables of thousands of Jewish families and institutions. 

I see Miriam’s Cup as a profoundly important corrective of a previously misperceived, unbalanced story, and a long overdue recognition of a woman who, like many Jewish daughters, has always taken second place to her stellar brothers.

As we know from Torah and midrash, and as the liquid in her cup attests, the Prophet Miriam, sister of Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher, and Aharon, the first high priest, has always been associated with water.  It was Miriam who defied the Pharaoh’s death sentence for male Hebrew infants, who placed baby Moses in the basket in the River Nile, a kind of birth canal that delivered him to the Pharaoh’s daughter who found and adopted him, assuring his survival. 

It was Miriam who, at the shore of the Red Sea, “took a timbrel in her hand and all the women followed her, with timbrels and with dancing.” And who “sang to them,” leading them through the parted waters, not with hesitation and fear but with music and dancing.  Perhaps taking a cue from Miriam, a few millennia later the Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman famously said, “If there’s no dancing, it’s not my revolution.” But it was our foremother Miriam who introduced the notion of radical change as worthy of celebration.

It was because of the merit of Miriam that a miraculous well traveled with the Israelites, slaking their thirst during forty years in the desert.  After Miriam died, there was no water. God instructed Moses to speak to a rock, asking it for water, as perhaps Miriam had sung and spoken to the land they were traversing, asking it for water.  Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck it — producing water but also God’s wrath sufficient to deny him entry into the Promised Land. A warning to us: like Miriam, address the Earth as our comrade, rather than making it our slave – or we will lose the Earth itself, our Promised Land.

Miriam is powerfully linked to all three water sources – river, sea, and well — for good reason. Just as without water there would be no life on earth, without Miriam, there would be no Jewish life.  Before he could lead us out of Mitzrayim, Moses had to be kept alive. We have Miriam’s Nile rescue plan to thank for his survival. Without Miriam’s song and dance, there would have been no life-enhancing celebration of our redemption.  Without Miriam’s Well, we would not have lived through our wanderings. 

The wine with which we fill Elijah’s Cup anticipates the bliss of a future messianic age.  The water we place in Miriam’s Cup celebrates life itself, the miracle of joy in the present, and the basic fact of Jewish survival.  A people needs both, but water comes before wine. Without water, there can be no wine.  Without Miriam, we would have had no messianic dream because we would have had no future.

Author bio: 

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books, including the forthcoming novel, SINGLE JEWISH MALE SEEKING SOUL MATE, to be published in May.

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