10 February 2017/ 14 Sh’vat 5777
Torah from Around the World #363
Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16)
By: Rabbi Paul Golomb*
An old joke regarding the Torah characterizes Exodus as the book in which two big things happen. One is the revelation at Mt. Sinai, and the other takes place in this week’s portion: the crossing of the Red Sea. The flight from Pharaoh’s army across dry land through a parted Sea is vividly described at the beginning of the parashah. Then, climatically “Moses and the people Israel sang this song unto the Eternal;” the Song of the Sea, with its stirring call: Who is like You, O Eternal, among the gods that are worshipped?
The Song, laid out in the Torah scroll in a pattern that looks like waves of water, is a cry of release. With the sea crashing down on the army in hot pursuit, the Israelites are now fully liberated from Egyptian oppression. At the end of the Song, however, is a curious and mysterious coda:
Then Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a hand-drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Eternal, for God has triumphed gloriously/ Horse and driver has God hurled into the sea. [Exodus 15:20-21]
The passage raises a multitude of concerns among both traditional and modern commentators. They wonder why Miriam is first named here, rather than in the earlier episode of accompanying the infant Moses floating down the Nile. Why is she called a prophetess, and attached to Aaron rather than Moses? Why does she lead women in apparently repeating the song already sung by the Israelites? Alternatively, should we take the term introducing the Song with b’nai Yisrael as literally meaning ‘sons of Israel’ – that only the men initially sang the song?
Let me add an additional question not often asked: Why are these verses here at all? What do they add to the narrative? I think a likely answer upends centuries of conventional thinking about worship.
Many commentators have drawn a connection between Miriam and other incidents in Scripture in which women sing and dance with drums in order to celebrate a victory: in the Book of Judges (Jephthah’s daughter) and in I Samuel (upon Saul and David’s defeat of the Philistines). However, Miriam, brings another dimension to the activity; she gathers women together in order to repeat the song already sung. In doing so, she transformed a spontaneous reaction into a ritual! The Song was no longer just a victory chant, it has also become liturgy.
The Bible is populated with individuals who address God – there are both men and women. One of the more poignant encounters is described at the beginning of I Samuel (and read as the haftarah on Rosh Hashanah). Hannah quietly beseeches God for a child. Her actions in the Tabernacle at Shiloh are so surprising to the high priest, Eli, that he assumes the woman is drunk. Is it that women should not pray? Or not pray in a public place? Or not pray where a proper encounter with the divine is expressed through sacrifice?
Prayer is indeed depicted as a private and individual act. A public and collective address of God is either the sacrificial service performed by the priests and Levites (all men), or song and dance that is done by women. An exception that proves the rule is King David’s dancing before the Ark of the Covenant as it is brought into Jerusalem (II Samuel 6). David’s wife, Michal, reproves her husband for putting on such a display. It is not the proper conduct of a monarch, but moreover, it is what women do! (That David is defended and Michal punished only reinforces that it is an exception.)
All of this discussion of song and dance as sacred ritual could be counted as a biblical curiosity, a minor insight into biblical culture, except for the post-biblical development of Judaism out of the religion of ancient Israel. In time, the Temple and its sacrificial service gave way to the synagogue and its service of worship. In The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, historian and archaeologist Lee I. Levine observed that the Jewish sages of the first and second century C.E. – the earliest rabbis – evidenced little interest in a Jewish worship service. Evidence for this claim is found in the discovery of ancient buildings separate from synagogues that had inscriptions labeling them as Houses of Prayer. Further, Levine noted, the inscriptions also listed benefactors, and a number of them were women!
The biblical practice of celebratory dance, as reflected by Miriam and the women at the Sea, had been carried forward as worship performed alongside the sacrifices offered in the Temple. The synagogue, whose earliest function included reading and preaching Scripture (Torah and Prophets), only later came to incorporate a liturgical prayer service. In due time, however, women were set aside, placed in a separate chamber and discouraged from making noise.
This status remained so until the advent of Jewish religious reform in the nineteenth century. Women were brought back into the main space of the sanctuary, and have since taken their proper place as leaders of worship in the roles of rabbis and cantors. Conventional thinking has always assigned this progressive change to being a break in tradition. I believe, however, that Reform and similar congregations have rather restored an ancient and well-buried practice. We have restored what Miriam began when she took a hand-drum and repeated the words “Sing unto the Eternal, for God has triumphed gloriously.”
* Rabbi Paul Golomb, Senior Scholar, Vassar Temple, Poughkeepsie, NY
We are sharing the sermon through the courtesy of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We are immensely grateful to the WUPJ.