January 26th, 2018
14 Tevet 5778
The story of this week’s Torah portion is a familiar one. We tell this story on Passover, we’ve watched it on the big screen. It is an epic tale of liberation and freedom and Divine power!
We meet the people in a moment of wild transition in which they are fleeing a life of bondage in Egypt. After a long debacle, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the our people go and off they went in search of the promised land.
And yet, as we all know, change can be difficult and often terrifying. Much like the feeling right before the roller coaster makes a big drop, the Israelites were probably experiencing not only anticipation and excitement but also anxiety and even fear. Yes, slavery was hard and times were tough but they knew where their next meal was coming from. They knew where they would rest their head each night. But all at once, they were swept into a new chapter in pursuit of freedom and everything they knew changed. This parsha is so jam packed with drama and excitement, that we often skip over its opening lines and miss a critical note about this very idea. The text reads: When Pharoah let the people go, God not did lead them by way of the land of Philistines although it was closer; for God said “the people may have a change of heart when they see war the Philistines are fighting, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people in a round about way, by way of the wilderness, through the Sea of Reeds.”
God knew that the people would be easily spooked. God knew that if they went the shorter way that would have been easier, they might see conflict and get scared and go back to Egypt. In fact, just a few verses later, the people see the Egyptians pursuing them and they implore Moses saying, “Didn’t we tell you this would happen? Didn’t we say “let us be”? Isn’t it better to live as a slave than to die in the wilderness…?”
The status quo is not always perfect and in fact, is often in dire need of change. However, as human beings we crave homeostasis. We appreciate consistency and routine and even a change that is in service of the greater good, can be deeply daunting.
Moses, hearing the fear in the voices of his people, tells them not to fear because God will provide. He reaches out his staff and a great miracle occurs - the waters of the sea part and the people make their way to safety. They are protected. They are saved. And their faith in God is restored.
We then meet the people on the shores of the sea and what once seemed hopeless becomes expansive and full of possibilities. At this moment, Miriam who to date has been referred to only as “Moses’ sister”, bursts out with a name and a title, Miriam ha’n’viah, the Prophet, takes a timbrel in her hand and all the women follow her with dancing and drumming. Miriam sings the song we know so well, singing “Shiru l’Adonai’ sing unto God. Her prophetic message is the song that sings the nation of Israel into freedom and truly, into being. Their first moments of freedom are framed not by speeches or ceremony by by song and celebration.
Her prophetic message is the song that sings the nation of Israel into freedom and truly, into being. Their first moments of freedom are framed not by speeches or ceremony but by song and celebration.
As you heard earlier, the song that is sung at this pivotal moment for our people is known as Shirat Hayam, the Song of the Sea, and we honor it through this weekend which is called “Shabbat Shirah” – Shabbat of Song. Shirat Hayam is the first “song” we encounter in our Torah and it is special not only in its content but also in its presentation. The text changes from looking like the typical columns of prose to a poetic form that has many white spaces punctuated by short lines of text. The physical appearance of the text is intended to mimic the rolling waves of the sea and visually represent the miracle that happened there. The melody that is chanted within it is different than the typical trope we use to chant verses of Torah. The melody of the song itself is joyful and lyrical and sets it apart from the rest of the chapters of the text.
The fact that this song as attributed to Miriam is no small thing. Miriam, the first woman in our text to receive the title of prophet, pushes up against the paradigm of exclusively male leadership that our story has thus upheld. Her emergence as ha’n’viah at this pivotal moment for our people represents a different kind of liberation too. We, the downtrodden and oppressed, are lifted up and given a new opportunity to claim our own agency in the world. Miriam too, is acknowledged and celebrated as a leader of the people and an agent of God.
Miriam’s part of the song is powerful but short. There is even evidence to suggest that perhaps her part of the Song of the Sea was truncated & redacted perhaps to undermine her authority and make sure she stayed in her rightful place as a woman. It raises the question then of how strong and powerful her voice may have been before it was repeatedly edited and ultimately, silenced. How much more could Miriam have said or sung had her voice been given the freedom afforded to her brothers Aaron and Moses? One can only wonder.
How much more could Miriam have said or sung had her voice been given the freedom afforded to her brothers Aaron and Moses? One can only wonder.
However, the fact that not only her song but her title and her instrumental role in the emancipation of the people was noted at all means that perhaps Miriam’s power was so great, that she could not be omitted. This moment of deliverance created a space in which those who were previously marginalized are lifted up and celebrated. The text seems to suggest that with the help of God, the oppressed may rise up and find victory in the face of the mighty. This is a moment not only of liberation but of revolution.
As I reflect on this story, I am captivated by the image of all the women of the nation coming together to lift their voices in support of a common goal. In our nation too, we have been experiencing a similar turmoil as we wrestle with who we want to be, what our values are and how we embody them. Just last week, in many major cities in the United States, streets were flooded with women and men expressing their desire for change and using their voices to claim their place in society.
So this Shabbat Shirah, I pray that we look to the song of the sea as a reminder that our voices provide us a unique power. The way we use them affords us the opportunity to make our presence in the world not only felt but heard.
So this Shabbat Shirah, I pray that we look to the song of the sea as a reminder that our voices provide us a unique power. The way we use them affords us the opportunity to make our presence in the world not only felt but heard. And finally as a people, may our voices ring out in song both in times of victory and may we lift our voices in support in times of defeat. May we never forget that it is our job to preserve our stories as a people and to tell them, to sing them, and to teach them to our children so that the People of Israel may always be ready, at a moment’s notice, to sing a new song unto God.
Shabbat Shalom everyone.