Miriam the prophetess . . . took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G‑d . . .”
We don’t sing when we are frightened, despairing, or sleepy. We sing when we are pining after one whom we love, when we are yearning for better times, when we are celebrating an achievement or anticipating a revelation.
We don’t sing when we are complacent. We sing when we are striving for something, or when we have tasted joy and are climbing it to the heavens.
Song is prayer, the endeavor to rise above the petty cares of life and cleave to one’s source. Song is the quest for redemption.
The Midrash enumerates ten preeminent songs in the history of Israel—ten occasions on which our experience of redemption found expression in melody and verse. The first nine were the song sung on the night of the Exodus in Egypt (Yeshayah 30:29); the “Song at the Sea” (Sh’mos 15:1–21); the “Song at the Well” (Bamidbar 21:17–20); Moshe’s song upon his completion of writing the Torah (Devarim 32); the song with which Yehoshua stopped the sun (Yehoshua 10:12–13); Devorah’s song (Shof’tim 5); the song of Dovid HaMelech (Shmuel 2, 22); the song at the dedication of the Beis HaMikdash (Tehillim 30); and Shlomo HaMelech’s Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), extolling the love between the Divine Groom and His bride, Israel.
The tenth song, says the Midrash, will be the shir chadash, the “new song” of the ultimate redemption: a redemption that is global and absolute; a redemption that will annihilate all suffering, ignorance, jealousy, and hate from the face of the earth; a redemption of such proportions that the yearning it evokes and the joy it brings require a new song—a completely new musical vocabulary—to capture the voice of Creation’s ultimate striving.
The most well known of the ten songs of redemption is Shiras HaYam, the “Song at the Sea” sung by Moshe and the Children of Israel upon their crossing of the Red Sea. We recite this song every day in our morning prayers, and we publicly read it in the synagogue twice a year: on the seventh day of Passover (the anniversary of the splitting of the sea and the song’s composition), and on a mid-winter Shabbos in the course of the annual Torah-reading cycle—a Shabbos which is therefore distinguished with the name “Shabbos Shirah,” “Shabbos of Song.”
The Song at the Sea praises G‑d for His miraculous redemption of Israel when He split the Red Sea for them and drowned the pursuing Egyptians in it, and expresses Israel’s desire that G‑d lead them to their homeland and rest His presence amongst them in the Beis HaMikdash. It concludes with a reference to the ultimate redemption, when “G‑d will reign for all eternity.”
Actually, there are two versions of the Song at the Sea, a male version and a female version. After Moshe and the Children of Israel sang their song, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took the tambourine in her hand; and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances. And Miriam called to them: ‘Sing to G‑d, for He is most exalted; horse and rider He cast in the sea…’” (Sh’mos 15:20–21).
The men sang, and then the women. The men sang, and then the women sang, danced, and drummed. The men sang—sang their joy over their deliverance, sang their yearning for a more perfect redemption—but something was lacking. Something that only a woman’s song could complete.
Feeling And Faith
Miriam, the elder sister of Moshe and Aharon, presided over the female encore to the Song at the Sea. Miriam—whose name means “bitterness”; at the time of her birth, the people of Israel entered the harshest phase of the Egyptian exile. Miriam—who, when the infant Moshe was placed in a basket at the banks of the Nile, “stood watch from afar, to see what would become of him” (Sh’mos 2:4).
For it was Miriam, with her deep well of feminine feeling, who truly experienced the bitterness of galus, of exile and persecution. And it was Miriam, with her woman’s capacity for endurance, perseverance, and hope, who stood a lonely watch over the tender, fledging life in a basket at the edge of a mammoth river; whose vigilance over what would become of him and his mission to bring redemption to her people never faltered.
The image of the young woman standing watch in the thicket of rushes at the edge of the Nile, the hope of redemption persevering against the bitterness of galus in her heart, evokes the image of another matriarch watching over her children—Rochel. As the prophet Yirmiyah describes it, it is Rochel who, in her lonely grave on the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, weeps over her children’s suffering in galus. It is she, more than the patriarchs or male leaders of Israel, who feels the depth of our pain; it is her intervention before G‑d, after theirs has failed, which brings the redemption.
Miriam and her chorus brought to the Song at the Sea the intensity of feeling and depth of faith unique to womankind. Their experience of the bitterness of galus had been far more intense than that of the menfolk, yet their faith had been stronger and more enduring. So their yearning for redemption had been that much more poignant, as was their joy over its realization and their striving towards its greater fulfillment.
Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist, writes that the last generation before the coming of Mashiach is the reincarnation of the generation of the Exodus.
Today, as we stand at the threshold of the ultimate redemption, it is once again the women whose song is the most poignant, whose tambourine is the most hopeful, whose dance is the most joyous. Today, as then, the redemption will be realized in the merit of righteous women. Today, as then, the woman’s yearning for Mashiach—a yearning which runs deeper than that of the man, and inspires and uplifts it—forms the dominant strain in the melody of redemption. v
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt’l; adapted by Yanki Tauber. Courtesy of MeaningfulLife.com via Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.