We read in Parashat Beshalach (15:20) that following the singing of Shirat Ha-yam – the euphoric song of praise sung by Benei Yisrael after miraculously crossing the sea – Miriam, Moshe’s sister, took a drum and began playing music and dancing together with the women. The Torah here describes Miriam as “Miriam the prophetess, Aharon’s sister,” prompting the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:22) to raise the question, “Aharon’s sister, and not Moshe’s sister?!” – wondering why Miriam is referred to as the sister of Aharon, and not also the sister of Moshe.
The Midrash explains that the Torah here alludes to the time before Moshe was born, when Aharon was Miriam’s only brother. Miriam prophesied at that time that her mother would bear a child who would grow to redeem Benei Yisrael from bondage. She is called here “Miriam the prophetess, Aharon’s sister” because the Torah draws our attention to the prophecy she had pronounced many years earlier, when Aharon was her only brother.
Why would the Midrash find within this verse, which speaks of Miriam’s celebrating the miracle of the splitting of the sea, an allusion to her prophecy eighty years earlier of the birth of the nation’s deliverer?
The answer, perhaps, is that the Midrash seeks to emphasize that Miriam rejoiced and “played the drums” not only in moments of jubilant triumph, but also in times of hardship and distress. She played the role of “drummer,” of encouraging her people and disseminating joy, not only after the miracle of the sea, but also back in Egypt, when despair and hopelessness had set in. Even then, she worked to lift people’s spirits and bring them happiness. It is not difficult to celebrate during times of triumph and success, to “play the drums” and exude joy when the “sea splits,” when we experience salvation and enjoy prosperity. Miriam’s greatness lay in her ability and determination to “play the drums” and spread hope and happiness in dark times, when people felt despondent and had despaired. And thus as the Torah describes Miriam’s ecstatic celebration at the shores of the Sea of Reeds, the Sages of the Midrash remind us that Miriam played this role also many years earlier, as her nation endured harsh persecution, remaining upbeat and hopeful of the happier future that awaited them.