2003Parshat Beshalach contains a riveting account of the most frequently revisited concepts in Jewish life: the Exodus from Egypt by way of the crossing of the Red Sea. The story that makes yearly headlines in the Haggadah is dramatically and breathlessly given to us here.
The Song of Miriam and Moses
The most exciting and textured section of Beshalach is the appearance of the songs of Moshe and Miriam. As the water drowns the Egyptians in the Red Sea, the Israelite people, overwhelmed with emotions of fear, faith, and gratitude, release themselves to the power of song. In Az Yashir, the men focus on the destruction of the Egyptians rather than their own salvation to instill fear and faith in God.
So Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea... The Lord, the Warrior - Lord is His name! Pharaoh's chariots and his army/He has cast into the sea; and the pick of his officers are drowned in the Sea of Reeds...You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them/They sank like lead in the majestic waters...
The Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously/Horse and Driver He has hurled into the sea
Your Exodus Navigator
1. Why do the women sing a separate song from the men?
2. Why is Miriam identified as "Aaron's sister" and not as Moses' sister?
3. What does it mean to be a prophetess?
4. What is the focus of Moses' song? Of Miriam's?
5. From where did the women get timbrels?
6. How does the idea of uniqueness through song contrast with the idea of Kol Isha, the religious restriction on women singing in public?
Miriam's song starts out confidently and assertively with "Shiru l'adonai, Sing to God!" whereas her brother began with a slight hesitation, "Az Yashir ... l'adonai- So, they sang to God." This grammatical variation sheds light on the difference between the way these men and women relate to the miracles of the Divine. The difference between the two songs is further alluded by the following Talmudic passage.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 11b
"When the Israelite women came to give birth (in Egypt), they did so in the fields, and God sent one from the highest heavens to clean and tend to them, like a midwife. So when God appeared to them at the Sea, they recognized Him first, as it is said, 'This is my God..."
1. How does this help to explain the difference in the two songs?
2. Why did the women give birth in the field?
Aviva Zornberg notes that song functions as the voice that gives life to a person's uniqueness. Although Miriam has already played a pivotal role in the story of the Jewish people, she is referred to by name for the first time in the Torah as she leads the women in song. To drive home her stature as an independent entity from Moshe, the Torah refers to Miriam as "Aaron's sister." As a woman confident to lead her people in song, Miriam's uniqueness, not only from her brother, but from the entire people of Israel, secures her as a role model and leader among the Jewish people.
The Torah refers pointedly to Miriam as a "n'viyah," prophetess. An important qualification of a Jewish prophet is the ability to foreshadow the attitudes, problems, and predicaments that will face the Jewish people in the future. However, a prophet of Israel does not simply divine the future, like a Greek oracle, but presents direction for the people, either in the language of criticism or of solace. Miriam's recognition as "n'viyah" is a result of two elements. First of all, she separates herself from the masses in the act of taking the timbrel and leading the women in song. Secondly, her foresight of bringing drums to the Red Sea posits a special relationship that she has with the Divine- the shadows of doubt cast even over her brother Moshe never penetrate her character. Miriam does not need the destruction of the Egyptians to feel secure in her relationship with God. This confidence is characteristic of all the Israelite women. Rashi points out, "'With drums and dancing': the righteous women of that generation were confident that God would do miracles for them; so they brought drums with them from Egypt."
Prepared by Laurie Matzkin, Senior JCSC Fellow, Multi-Campus Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Beshalach at MyJewishLearning.com.