Thursday, 25 Jan 2024

Written by Emily Carp

B’shalach gives us the first two accounts of Shirat Ha-Yam, the prayer of exultation that also features in our daily liturgy and is usually sung. In Exodus chapter 15, verse 1, we read:

“Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song to the Almighty: I will sing to the Almighty who has risen in triumph, horse and rider God hurled into the sea” [p51 of Forms of Prayer siddur (2008)].

However, in verse 21, we read:

“And Miriam chanted for them: sing to God for he has triumphed gloriously, horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.”

On a first reading, there is nothing that problematic or incongruous to be seen here. It is certainly not uncommon for the Torah to repeat elements of a story for emphasis, and the text alluding to Miriam repeating Moses’s earlier song here closes off the account of the exodus from Egypt.

In her 1989 article “Bringing Miriam out of the shadows,” Phyllis Trible wrote that “the recapitulation jars. It seems awkward, repetitious and misplaced.” She comments that by placing Miriam’s recitation of the song after Moses’, and making it shorter and slightly less personal, Miriam’s contribution is made into an anticlimactic afterthought. However, Trible then went on to reference an older article that posits that Miriam’s song was the earlier of the two versions, and that the presence of Miriam within this story was so well known that the redactors of the Torah could not eliminate her voice from the narrative even when they wished to elevate Moses above her.

Referencing Trible’s discomfort with the repetition of Shirat Ha-Yam by Miriam so closely after the full recitation by Moses, in 1992 Gerald Janzen offered an alternative linguistic explanation that reverses the order of understanding of the text that might otherwise be intuited. He highlights the continued use of verbs in a ‘vav-consecutive’ form in Exodus 15:19-21 that make it plausible to read the verses as though they continue the song that is otherwise assumed to end at verse 18. If Shirat Ha-Yam doesn’t end with the declaration of Adonai Yimloch l’olam va-ed, but rather continues with the description of what God did, hurling horses and people into the sea, then this would account for the existence of verse 19 that otherwise makes little sense. There is no narrative development that occurs with the repetition on its own, but the narrative is changed substantially if verses 19-21 are actually a part of the song that Moses sings. This extension of the song would mean that Miriam sang the song earlier to all the children of Israel, supported by the women of the community, and chapter 15 opens with Moses recalling his sister’s words.

This is important, because we know how often women’s words are disregarded, and later re-attributed to men. The development of Judaism within patriarchal structures, and as a creator of those structures itself, has led to women’s voices within the Torah and as commentators being left off the page. It is hard to find the women in our texts who lead the community, and even harder to find those who lead without enacting violence against men who have brutalised them. Here we have Miriam, leading the women of the community in song and dance, and her brother acknowledging and elevating her as someone who has already initiated these celebrations (if we accept Janzen’s reading and interpretation as correct.) We also have the first example of women’s song from within the Pentateuch, the significance of which was expounded by Professor Carol Meyers in her torah.com article “Miriam’s Song of the Sea: A Women’s Victory Performance”. Verse 20 describes Miriam and the women taking up hand drums and singing and dancing, which is historically credible based on archaeological evidence discovered from the ancient Levant. Many engravings, sculptures and other art forms appear to depict women as the primary musicians at all sorts of communal events, and therefore it seems highly plausible, if not likely, that it was in fact Miriam and the women who led the community in celebratory music. Meyers wrote that the attribution of Shirat Ha-Yam to Miriam “means that this powerful and perhaps earliest message about God’s power used to save the people is given voice by a woman.” As a student rabbi being educated in a class that is primarily made up of women, this feels like an appropriate and timely thing to reflect upon, especially when there are still elements of the wider Jewish community who believe that a woman’s voice is ervah, and should not be heard in song. This parasha contradicts this narrative clearly and celebrates the voices of women being raised in defiance, celebration and community.

Emily Carp LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.