D’VAR TORAH SHABBAT B’SHALLAH
D’var Torah Shabbat B’Shallah Jan. 25, 1997 Ruz Gulko
From out of B’Shallah, the Song, Shiraht HaYahm, calls to us. Ancient, bold, majestic – it leaps off the Torah parchment, telling in poetry the climactic episode of our deliverance from slavery. It is a story as vivid and dramatic as that of Sinai, as mystical and mysterious as Creation itself.
The Shirah held an important place in the Temple’s service, and then in the Siddur’s. It contains one of our oldest liturgical fragments, Mi Hamoha, and its response;” YHVH yimlokh l’olam va’ed.”
The siblings Miryam and Moshe play the leading roles here in, as Cantor Jeff Klepper calls it:
”…this grand opera of history, fantasy and faith. It is Moses’ voice that begins the song and it is Miriam’s that ends it, but it is their finest moment as a duo. Miriam is so much more than a cheerleader after Moshe’s song. Just as she helped save his life at another body of water, again she supports Moshe as only a sibling can. Yes, Moshe writes and presents the script, words and music, but it is Miriam who adds movement, rhythm and colour to the work of art. Ever the free spirit, it is she who takes the liturgical text to the next level, as her right brain creativity offers a perfect counterpart to Moshe’s left-brain logic. But her contribution is under-appreciated in the text.”
In fact, how many times do you think Miryam’s name is written in the whole book of Shemot? Only twice! And both times are in two consecutive sentences, here in Ch. 15, verses 20 & 21. Everywhere else she is “his sister” or “the maiden”. And when the family’s genealogy and names are presented in Ch. 6, Miryam is not even mentioned.
And yet we know Miryam is a Ne’viah, a prophetess. In verse 20 we read:” And Miryam, the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took a timbrel in her hand…” Why is she only identified here as the sister of Aharon, and not also as the sister of Moshe, the central human figure of the whole story? Because, the Midrash teaches, it was as a young child, before Moshe was born, that Miryam’s gift of Ne’vi’ut, prophecy, was established. Their father, Amram, had divorced their mother Yoheved, advising all Israelite men to do the same, as a disheartened response to Pharoah’s murderous degree against all newborn sons. Miryam rebuked her father, accusing him of condemning to death all Jewish babies by leaving them unborn, and of losing faith. “And Miryam prophesied: ‘My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel’, and when the house was flooded with light at the birth of Moshe, her father arose and kissed her head and said:’ My daughter, thy prophecy has been fulfilled.’” (Midrash Rabbah). And yet, only a single verse of Miryam’s song at the Sea was recorded in the Torah, and even that is a direct quote from her brother’s song. The scholar Ellen Frankel asks: “Is it possible that this imbalance reflects later editing, and not Miriam’s second-class status in her own time? Some of us believe that Miriam’s song was censored or lost, due to a later generation’s uneasiness with female leadership.”
In ancient Near Eastern cultures, women frequently sang battle songs, and there is compelling evidence in clay from ancient Mediterranean cultures of a widespread women’s performance tradition, usually involving the three arts of song, drum, and dance. Clearly, women’s participation and leadership in these arts were an established, honoured tradition in our history.
We are indeed blessed to be the descendants of a woman like Miryam. Those of us gathered here today are free to lift our voices in prayer and in song, free to wrap ourselves in fringed garments, and free to read the Torah on behalf of the assembled congregation. We know that this was not always so. We owe an enormous gratitude to those courageous women who came before us, and stepped forward to claim for themselves and for us our rightful place as full and equal participants in all aspects of Jewish life.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches: “The dances of the Jews before the Creator are prayers.” And may our voices continue to soar with all women and all men who come before God with open hearts to pour out their hearts in prayer. Ken Y’hee Ratzon! Shabbat Shalom!