Beshallach/ Shabbat Shira: the Song of Miriam

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal for God is highly exalted: the horse and its rider God has thrown into the sea.”

Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, is named for the Song at/of the Sea (Shirat haYam) and this name takes precedence over the usual format of the first important word giving the title to the week. Shirat haYam was the song of victory sung by the Israelite slaves after they had successfully crossed the Reed Sea, and the pursuing Egyptians had drowned there following the miraculous opening and then closing of the waves to allow the Israelites safe passage but not the heavily armed Egyptians.

Along with the poem in Deuteronomy (Ha’azinu) it bookends the story of Moses and the people of Israel as they leave Egyptian slavery and journey through the wilderness to arrive at the edge of the promised land, and tradition ascribes its authorship to Moses.

But tucked into the text a little way down we are introduced for the first time by name to Miriam, described as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron” and she takes a drum in her hand and leads the women in singing and dancing and drumming to celebrate the victory. And while apparently singing the same first line, Moses and the children of Israel sing “I will sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted” while Miriam sings “Sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted”. She uses the imperative version, whereas Moses and the Israelites use the personal pronoun.

The order of the text makes us read this as the song of Moses, but is there a clue in the wording of the text to tell us that this is the song of Miriam?

In the fragments of text found in Qumran (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) we find a tantalising addition. Just as in the biblical text we find that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron took a timbrel in her hand and led the women out with her with timbrels and dancing”, but then there is a break, and then the fragments of seven lines NOT found in the biblical text, followed by the narrative being picked up as the biblical verse 15:22 where Moses leads the Israelites away from the Reed Sea into the desert, and the people find no water until arriving at Marah they find undrinkably bitter (Marah) water.

Is the Qumran text a gloss on the biblical poem of Moses, answering the question of what Miriam might have sung and paralleling other songs of victory or was it the original text which took away words from Miriam and the women in order to give them to Moses and the Israelites? We know that women sang songs of victory after battles – Deborah is a prime example whose song is recorded (Judges 5), and Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34) comes out with timbrel and dancing on his return home. Unnamed women come out dancing and singing with their timbrels when David returns having defeated the Philistines (1Sam 18:6-7) celebrating his success and humiliating King Saul’s record. Hannah (1Sam:2) sings when she achieves her goal of a child, and the late book Judith has her sing in the final chapter, having beheaded Holofernes…

So why not Miriam and the women singing their song? Miriam the prophetess was also Miriam the musician and song leader. Her voice and her words deserve to be heard and to be recognised.

miriams timbrel

Whatever the reason for the biblical canon to contain just the remnant of her singing with the women, apparently echoing the words of Moses and the men, so that tradition could claim her as the song leader for the women only, I think there are enough clues left for us to give her the power and place she deserves.

The first place that Moses leads the Israelites to is called by the narrator “Marah” , after the bitter and undrinkable water found there and there is much murmuring against Moses until on God’s instructions he finds a tree whose wood will sweeten the water. Moses uses this as a teaching aid to remind the people that God is their healer, and then they move on to Elim where there are twelve good water sources and seventy palm trees. Is this a veiled reference to Miriam, whose name is impossible to translate with certainty but which is often understood as coming from “Mar – yam – bitter – water/sea”? Are the people murmuring because of Miriam and her treatment by Moses that he appropriated her rightful role? And are they pacified by the oasis of plenty represented by 12 springs and seventy palm trees and so forget their indignation?

But more intriguing I think is the possibility that Miriam’s name is not derived from bitterness MRH) but comes from a rarely used root MRR to mean a flow of water, drops of water or a watercourse. In which case her name would mean the flowing of water or the directing of water – something that would come to fruition not only in the midrashic idea that wherever Miriam was there was water for the Israelites in the desert (which comes from the drought that is the first reported event after her death), but from this text about the Reed Sea, which changed direction, flowed differently and intentionally while the Israelites crossed it. The name Miriam, introduced exactly here, is I think a clue to her purpose –  we are already explicitly told that she is a prophetess, she has real and intentional meaning and understanding – it is Miriam who causes the sea to part and the miraculous redemption of the fugitive people. Her name, hiding in full view, tells us exactly that.

So the Song here attributed to Moses yet called slightly confusingly Shirat HaYam , the Song of (or at) the Sea (a name first recorded in the 2nd Century in Talmud Yerushalmi), might actually have been Shirat MirYam, the song of Miriam. And how powerfully that simple change could have affected our understanding of our foundational texts and shaped the hearing of the voices of women in our tradition.

Drop by drop as we look again at the texts, we who see Miriam as a role model, who see ourselves reflected in her life as prophetess, sister, organiser, carer for children, provider of life giving water/nourishment, song leader, drummer and dancer , as well as a hard worker behind the scenes who protested injustice done to others and the arrogating of power to the male leadership – we need to take notice of the effect that the flow of water can have – it can wear away the hardest rock. Drop by determined drop we take up her mantle and raise our voices in song and in challenge and in prophecy, and hope that this time the words will not disappear from the canon.

(Photo of Miriam’s timbrel and the reeds in Egypt/water of the Reed Sea from an embroidered Torah Wimple made by Caroline and Naomi Ingram for the author)

Parashat Beshallach Shabbat Shira

This week we will be reading Parashat Beshallach, which is also known as Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of song, because it contains within it the song sung by the grateful survivors of the escape from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Reed Sea.

Parashat Beshallach always coincides with the week we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees, a time when traditionally we understand that the trees are beginning to awake from the dormancy of winter and their sap begins to rise.  As we celebrate this minor festival which was originally a cut-off date for tax purposes, we become more aware of the nature that is around us and that we often forget to notice in the busyness of our lives. There are a number of customs that have grown up around this date. Planting trees, eating the fruits specific to the land of Israel, grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates, and some say a carob or etrog too. There is a Kabbalistic custom to eat 15 different varieties of fruit on the fifteenth of Shevat – a sort of inflated “five a day”. There is also a Kabbalistic custom of having a Seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning and ten different fruits and four cups of wine would be consumed in order to help complete the creation of the world. I have always liked the idea of eating and drinking being a good way to perfect our world !

But there is another custom that is very old and is connected with this weekend, specifically with Shabbat Shira, and that is to feed the birds.  This week we read of the despair that followed the elation after the people had crossed over the Reed Sea and the Egyptians were no longer pursuing them. They are hungry and thirsty. The water they find is bitter and unsuitable for drinking. There is little food for them to eat. They begin to moan and complain “The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness, and they said to them : “If only we had died by God’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread. For you (Moses and Aaron) have brought us into this wilderness in order to starve the whole assembly to death” (Exodus 16:2-3). What followed of course is the appearance of Manna and of quail for them to eat: “God said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion — that I may test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. But on the sixth day, when they prepare what they have brought in, it shall prove to be twice the amount they gather daily.” …and In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” — for they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “That is the bread which God has given you to eat. This is what God has commanded: Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an omer to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in his tent.” Exodus 16: selected from v4-v 16)

But we are told in the midrash that on the first Shabbat after the people had been collecting the manna, they went out on to try to collect some on that day too – even though they had been given twice the amount the previous day in order not to have go collect on Shabbat. And Rashi tells us that there were people who went even further in their wicked behaviour – these people not only went out to collect on Shabbat, but had previously scattered some of their extra manna around the camp in order for people to find it and to mistrust Moses and what he said God was saying. But, says the Midrash, birds came early in the morning and they ate up all the scattered manna in order to protect the reputations of both Moses and God, and no manna was found when the people came looking on Shabbat.  Because of this extraordinary kindness, our tradition is to feed the birds this Shabbat especially to thank them.

There is a second reason often cited for our custom of feeding the birds on this Shabbat particularly, and that is to do with the name of the sidra – Shira. God having rescued us from the pursuing Egyptians is praised in song, but singing is the special skill of birds so there is a mystical tradition that we must repay them for appropriating their particular worship style. Hence, we feed them.

Now I don’t really think that either of these stories have much grounding in reality, but I do notice that while Spring is marked with the onset of Tu B’Shvat, so often there is a turn for the worse in the weather, and that the birds, having survived many weeks of poor weather and poor hunting already, could do with a little help, and for that reason it seems to me to be a good thing to do – to spread a little birdseed or hang a few fat-balls and feel ourselves to be doing our bit for keeping the bird populations going.  The stories tell us that we are paying the birds back for their acts of kindness, but while that is an important lesson to learn, so is the lesson of caring for our world simply because it is our world, because we are co-creators with God in this world, because it is our responsibility to keep it going and to look after it. Our tradition also tells the story that when God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent! Take care not to spoil or destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Midrash Rabbah, Commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:13)