“And All the Women Went Out After Her”

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Miriam Heller z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the seventh of Shvat,
by her niece, Vivian Singer.
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Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish

Miriam and the Song of the Sea

This week’s parasha features the Song of the Sea. How was this song uttered? The Gemara (Sota 30b) records a discussion among the Tannaim:

“Our rabbis taught: On that day R. Akiva expounded, When Bnei Israel ascended from the Reed Sea, they sought to utter praise. And how did they offer praise? Like an adult who leads the congregation in reciting the Hallel, and they respond to him with the chorus; Moshe said, ‘I shall sing to the Lord,’ and they responded, ‘I shall sing to the Lord.’ Moshe said, ‘For He has triumphed gloriously,’ and they responded, ‘I shall sing to the Lord.’

R. Eliezer, son of R. Yossi ha-Gelili, said: Like a minor who leads the Hallel, and they respond, repeating what he says. Moshe said, ‘I shall sing to the Lord,’ and they responded, ‘I shall sing to the Lord.’ Moshe said, ‘For He has triumphed gloriously,’ and they responded, ‘For He has triumphed gloriously.’

R. Nechemia said: Like a teacher who leads [his charges in] reciting Shema (pores et shema) in the synagogue: he begins first, and they respond after him.”

The first two opinions present Am Yisrael as reciting the song in a passive way: Moshe recited the Hallel – the Song of the Sea – and they repeated after him (either verse by verse or with a recurring refrain). While the meaning of the third opinion is not entirely clear, judging by the context it would seem to indicate answering ‘amen’ (as suggested by the image of schoolchildren answering ‘amen’ after the blessings recited by their teacher prior to the Shema) after the praises offered by Moshe. This too evokes a mode of leadership in which the people are passive.

A different situation is depicted after the Song of the Sea:

“Then Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aharon, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; He has thrown the horse and its rider in the sea.’” (Shemot 15:20-21)

What was special about Miriam? She took initiative and aroused sweeping enthusiasm among the women in response to Moshe’s song. The women go out after Miriam spontaneously; their response is not limited to passive repetition.

“I will descend first into the sea” or I will not descend first into the sea”?

Further on in Sota, we find another beraita recording disagreement among the Tannaim concerning the splitting of the Reed Sea:

“It was taught: R. Meir said, When Bnei Yisrael stood at the Reed Sea, the tribes strove with one another, each saying, ‘I wish to descend into the sea first.’ The tribe of Binyamin sprang forth and descended first into the sea… And the princes of Yehuda threw stones at them… Therefore the righteous Binyamin was worthy of hosting the All-Powerful, as it is written, ‘He dwells between his shoulders.’

R. Yehuda said [to R. Meir], That is not how it happened; rather, each tribe said, ‘I will not descend into the sea first.’ Nachshon ben Aminadav [of the tribe of Yehuda] sprang forth and descended first into the sea… Concerning him it is stated in our tradition, ‘Save me, O God, for the waters have come in unto my soul; I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing…’ (Tehillim 69:2); ‘Let the floodwaters not overwhelm me, neither let the deep swallow me up…’” (Sota 36b)

What is the essence of the dispute between R. Meir and R. Yehuda? They disagree whether the general character of Am Yisrael prior to the splitting of the sea was closer to the Gemara’s description of the men, or more reminiscent of the description of the women.

R. Yossi maintains that the tribes were full of motivation, each seeking to be the first to descend into the sea, to the point where the elders of Yehuda threw stones at the men of Binyamin when the latter took the initiative and plunged in. R. Yehuda, in contrast, maintains that the tribes were hesitant, preferring to put off action rather than taking risks, until someone would force them onward.

Shifra, Pu’a and Miriam

The disagreement between R. Meir and R. Yehuda seems to reflect the essence of the question debated by R. Akiva and R. Yossi ha-Gelili: was Am Yisrael, at the beginning of the redemption, active or passive? Did they take the lead or were they led? In relation to this dispute, we proposed that the text offers a model of each type of behavior in the model of the women and the men, respectively.

The activism attributed to the women is not new. At the very beginning of Sefer Shemot we encounter Shifra and Pu’a, who rebel against Pharaoh and act in accordance with their own religious ideology in defiance of the royal command. They are the first religious conscientious objectors. They are not cowed by Pharaoh’s cruel decrees, but continue to aid and encourage Jewish women in childbirth, doing what they can to ensure the survival of the nation.

The Gemara recounts that Amram separated from his wife because he could see no purpose in bringing children into the world if they were doomed to slavery. Miriam shows him a different perspective, encouraging him to remain steadfast in his faith and not despair, and ultimately causing him to take back Yocheved, his wife:

“‘And there went a man of the house of Levi’ – to where did he go? R. Yehuda bar Zavina said, He went on the advice of his daughter.

It was taught: Amram was the greatest sage of his generation. When he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, ‘Every son that is born – you shall cast him into the Nile,’ he said, ‘We exert ourselves in vain.’ He then proceeded to divorce his wife, whereupon all [the men] proceeded to divorce their wives.

His daughter said to him, ‘Father, your decree is worse than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s decree concerns only the males, while your decree concerns males and females alike. The effect of Pharaoh’s decree is limited to this world, while the effect of your decree is both this world and in the World to Come. Pharaoh is wicked, and it is questionable whether his decree will be fulfilled; you are righteous, and your decree will certainly be fulfilled....’ [Amram] then took back his wife, and all [the men] took back their wives.” (Sota 12a)

Prior to this the Gemara describes how the righteous Jewish women would prepare and wait for their husbands at the end of their hard, exhausting and oppressive day of hard labor. The women would cook hot food and give their husbands encouragement, cheer them and entice them:

“R. Avira expounded: As a reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation, Israel were delivered from Egypt.

When they went to draw water, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused small fish to enter their pitchers, which they drew up half full of water and half full of fish. And they would set two pots upon the fire, one with water and the other with fish. And they would bring them to their husbands, in the field, and they would wash them and anoint them, and feed them and give them to drink, and they engaged in intercourse with them among the sheepfolds…” (Sota 11b)

Again and again we find the women declaring in word and action that all is not lost, that there is hope for the future, that the Jewish people must continue and survive and multiply. This phenomenon appears to be connected to a motif characterizing women’s behavior in the haftara, too.

“Awaken, awaken, Devora!”

Our haftara deals with Devora, who led Am Yisrael in the fierce battle against Yavin, king of Chatzor, who was oppressing Israel. This situation was somewhat reminiscent of the status of Am Yisrael in Egypt, subjugated and lacking in leadership. Barak is ready to act, but only in a limited capacity – under Devora’s command, rather than taking the lead himself.

The nation is divided between tribes that volunteer for this battle, and tribes that hold back. The song that Devora offers following the victory mentions an interesting character, Meroz. Apparently, he was the leader of a large group that could have made a meaningful contribution to the fighting forces. But Meroz did not come. Similarly, there is another group that lives in the area but refrained from taking a stand: “the Keini,” to whom Sisera fled, knowing that these people would not involve themselves in the conflict. They were the equivalent of the neutral Swiss during the Second World War, chocolatiers and watchmakers and bankers who stayed out of politics, “living and letting live,” with no say with regard to the turmoil around them. According to the midrash, the forefather of this group, Yitro, was one of the sages consulted by Pharaoh as to what should be done about Bnei Yisrael, and who evaded the question and fled rather than stating his position. The wicked Bil’am proposed annihilating the nation – but at least had the courage of his convictions; he was willing to take a position and to act on it. He was not apathetic towards reality.

Yitro and the descendants of the Keini represent this apathy towards history. “And Yitro heard” – according to one opinion, what he heard about was the giving of the Torah. This speaks to Yitro’s intellectual, theological engagement in questions of “substance,” while ignoring the other news that he “heard” – the story of the splitting of the sea. We cannot help but think of the Swiss policy during the Second World War.

Yael, wife of Chever the Keini, might have continued this policy of even-handedness, non-involvement, and apathy: she could have hosted Sisera and then sent him on his way, with no regard for his political identity and his actions during the battle. Instead, she took a stance and acted. The midrash states that her self-sacrifice extended to seducing Sisera. She chose to break the barrier of apathy and passivity, risking her very life in the process: Sisera could have awoken and killed her.

“As for you – raise your staff…”

As a young man, filled with youthful energy and idealism, Moshe had acted on behalf of his Jewish brethren, but then became disillusioned. After fleeing Egypt to Midian, he appears to have grown apathetic towards the fate of his people. While tending Yitro’s herds, he arrives at Chorev and experiences a Divine revelation at the burning bush. He turns aside to marvel at the burning bush – a spiritual experience. But God explains that only “when you bring the people out of Egypt, will you serve God upon this mountain.” God insists that Moshe’s spiritual experience must not be severed from the fate and experiences of his people.

At the Reed Sea, God commands Moshe to act. As the Gemara describes it:

“At that time Moshe engaged in lengthy prayer. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: My beloved are drowning in the sea, yet you lengthen your prayer before Me? Moshe answered Him, Master of the universe, what can I do? God said to him, Speak to Bnei Yisrael and let them journey; as for you – raise your staff and stretch out your hand…” (Sota 37a)

Moshe must be a partner in action, together with Bnei Yisrael.

The lesson we learn from the women in the parasha and in the haftara is not to lose our enthusiasm, our values, and our ideals. Miriam, Shifra and Pu’a, Devora and Yael all acted in stark contrast to the “defeated idealists” whom we encountered in Sefer Bereishit: Noach and Lot. They did not allow difficult and oppressive situations to defeat their spirit, but rather chose to act and to do everything in their power.

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Beshalach 5775 [2015].)