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Parashat BeShalach

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Beshalah 5761/ February 10, 2001-- Shabbat Shira

Miriam's Song

Prof. Tovah Cohen
Department of the Literature of the Jewish People
The Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Center for the Study of Women in Judaism

The simplicity, brevity, and even paucity of Miriam's song stand in striking contrast to the loftiness of the "Song at the Sea" sung by Moses. In contrast to the rich language, depiction and metaphors in the Song at the Sea, Miriam's song consists of one, extremely simple sentence: "Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled into the sea" (Ex. 15:21). Miriam's song differs not only in its simplicity and the brevity, but also in the subject it describes. The Song at the Sea describes in detail the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the future of the Israelite people. In contrast, Miriam's single sentence succinctly sums up the miracle that the people have just experienced and nothing more. This sentence, which is like a heading or general introduction to the Song at the Sea, becomes a separate song in Miriam's mouth.

Traditional commentators have not paid much attention to the short, simple character of Miriam's song. Rashi's commentary on this verse, based on the Mekhilta (Be-Shalah, ch. 10), gives a clue to the reason for this lack of attention: "Moses chanted a song for the men; he would chant for them and they would answer him. And Miriam chanted a song for the women." In other words, the Song on the Sea was recited twice, for the men and the women in parallel. Moses chanted the song in its entirety for the men, who answered him in refrain, and Miriam repeated this procedure for the women. There was no difference between the two songs, except that the procedure of the women's chanting was related in brief.

I would like to suggest a different way of viewing the song of Miriam, using an approach that adheres closely to the plain text. As I read it, the song of Miriam is deliberately far shorter and simpler than that sung by Moses. Miriam took one key verse from the lofty song, and from it she created a unique religious experience.
Of the two verses devoted to a description of Miriam's song, more than half the text (v. 20 and about one third of v. 21) is given to describing how the song was performed: "Then 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 (vata'an) for them: ..." In Moses' song, in contrast, this point is quite insignificant ("Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord," v. 1). Miriam's song was unique and different from Moses'. True, Miriam took the lead; but there emerged a group of women who took part together in a religious act, chanting to the accompaniment of music and dance. Furthermore, the Song on the Sea was a personal prophetic song of Moses, as is emphasized by the use of the third person singular for the verb ('az yashir, "then ... sang,") despite the subject of the sentence being plural - "Moses and the Israelites." It is true that the Song of Miriam is also presented in her name ("she took the timbrel," "she chanted"), but the emphasis is on her audience reciprocating - "Miriam chanted for them."[1] In contrast to Moses' song, which expressed the strength of personality, prophecy, and poetic ability of this great leader, and which was addressed to G-d and perhaps to all those who would recite it in future generations, Miriam's song was addressed to her contemporaries, its strength stemming from its immediate expression of the event and the popular, rousing manner in which it was delivered.

This contrast between the two songs is also embodied in the words of the songs themselves, as we mentioned above. Perhaps the people could have repeated Moses' song by imitation, although it is difficult to imagine that the slaves just released from the yoke of bondage to Egypt would have been capable of understanding its elevated poetic language. Miriam's song, in contrast, describes an event that just took place in simple, non-metaphoric language that could be easily understood by everyone. Moreover, if Miriam and the women broke out in song and dance in response to Miriam's chant, one can well imagine that they repeated its single verse time and again, so that in the end even those who had not understood it would surely be able to repeat it. Thus Miriam's song had the character of a popular religious observance in which all could participate; they could share the experience of rejoicing in the miracle and proclaiming their faith in their Lord who had delivered them. According to the plain sense of the text, and in contrast to the opinion in the Mekhilta and Rashi, it could be that this popular ceremony of thanksgiving was not celebrated by the women alone. True, the women were the first to join Miriam "in dance with timbrels," however Miriam later addressed all the people in her song. Hence Scripture is careful to say "and Miriam chanted for them [lahem, masculine plural]" - for the men along with the women.

Comparison of the two songs shows that Miriam set a different pattern of leadership from Moses. Moses was an elitist leader,[2] perhaps closer to the Holy One, blessed be He ("he is trusted throughout My household," Num. 12:7) than to the people. This might be one explanation for his repeated conflicts with the people. Moses did not perceive his role as based on dialogue and close connection with the people. Little wonder that at one of the peaks of his friction with the people he explicitly refused to "care for them" in a manner which is perceived as feminine: "Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom'?" (Num. 11:12). Miriam, in contrast, is extremely close to the people, as is evident from the character of the Song of Miriam, and as perhaps is hinted when Rashi identifies the midwives Shifra and Puah with Yochebed and Miriam. Rashi's commentary on Exodus 1:15 emphasizes Miriam's bonding with the newborn child: "Puah was Miriam, who speaks softly (po'ah) and murmurs to the newborn in the way of women who calm a crying child." Miriam, who bonds with the infants of the Israelites as they are born, is the one who addresses them and bonds with them also in their adulthood. Miriam chose to lead by the people by addressing them in a language they could understand - through a non-elitist religious rite, somewhat resembling the religious rites of surrounding peoples - and by transforming the magnificent but incomprehensible prophetic song into a chant easily learned by those who heard it.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me stress that the rite which Miriam led was intended to raise the spiritual experience of the people to a higher level: the dance and music did not focus around offering sacrifices to pagan gods, as was the general practice in the surrounding nations and as the Israelites imitated in the sin of the Golden Calf,[3] rather they related to a prayer of thanksgiving to an abstract G-d - the first step in leading the people to monotheism. Miriam, like Moses and Aaron, was also a leader who directed the people towards this sort of faith - little wonder that Scripture refers to her as "Miriam the prophetess"[4] - however she chose to do so in a different manner. Miriam's leadership was guided not by stressing her individuality, separating the "I" from his surroundings, but by forming a network of human relations. Feminist psychologists define such an approach as intrinsically "feminine," growing out of the female personality structure that results from the general way baby girls are raised as opposed to baby boys.[5]

An appreciation of Miriam's particular approach to leadership can help us understand other places in Scripture that have to do with the relationship between Miriam and the people. The special, loving bond of the people towards Miriam is expressed almost without words in the section describing how Miriam was afflicted with leprosy, in the verse: "So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted" (Num. 12:15). In the context of the previous chapter, which relays in detail the people's complaints against Moses and the friction between the people and their leader, which was then coming to a climax ("The people took to complaining bitterly ... Moses heard the people weeping ... and Moses was distressed ... I cannot carry all this people by myself..."), one might have expected that holding up the entire camp for the sake of the leader's sister who was being punished would evoke the people's wrath; but that was not the case. In my opinion the people's silence expresses their willingness to wait for Miriam without a single complaint since they loved her so dearly.

Her special talent in communicating with the people was sorely missed immediately upon Miriam's death, as we see from the close juxtaposition of the account of her demise with the story of the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:1-14). The Sages, and Rashi following them, draw a connection between the people's demand for water and the disappearance of Miriam's well, which had moved along with them in the wilderness but disappeared upon Miriam's death: "When Miriam died, the well disappeared" (Ta'anit 9a). Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the stories can also be interpreted in the context of Miriam's unique leadership qualities. Miriam was the one who enabled dialogue with the people; it was she who bridged the gap between the short-tempered, complaining people and their great leader. This mediating effect ceased with her death, so it is little wonder that Moses addressed the people in especially harsh words -- "Listen, you rebels" (Num. 20:10) - precisely at that point. This anger, according to Maimonides, was Moses' sin: "The Lord called him to task for a person of such stature showing his anger before the Israelite community" (Introduction to Tractate Avot, ch. 4). Maimonides associates this shortness of temper with Moses' alienation from the people: "for he would not talk with the masses." Moses failed - speaking in a way that attested to his alienation from the people - precisely after Miriam's death, once her moderating, positive influence had disappeared.

Thus Miriam provides a unique example of feminine leadership, which Scriptures accept as favorable. The song of Miriam is neither an imitation nor an inferior version of Moses' song. It is Miriam's song, which represents her way in leadership.

[1] The author of Da'at Mikra on Exodus interprets verse 21 similarly: "Miriam opened her mouth in song, and all who heard her joined in and sang along."[The verb vata'an means she called to them in song and they responded by repeating or singing the refrain.--Ed.]
[2] Bear in mind that Moses did not grow up among his people, rather in the king's court. Perhaps this is another reason for the elitism built into his personality.
[3] The religious rites surrounding the Golden Calf are described as a combination of feasting and unrestrained celebration ("they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance," Ex. 32:6) and dancing ("Moses ... saw the calf and the dancing," Ex. 32:19).
[4] In Micah's prophecy as well, Miriam is described as taking part in leadership of the people along with her brothers: "And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam" (Micah 6:4).
[5] This theory was first formulated by the feminist psychologist N. Chodorow in her book, The Reproduction of Mothering, Stanford 1976.