“The Exalted Spirituality of Miriam the Prophetess”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, the long-awaited redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery takes place in all its resounding glory.

The Egyptians, who relentlessly pursue the Israelites, ultimately drown in the sea and the inspired Moses, leads the people in majestic song, praising G-d for redeeming His people.

As soon as Moses concludes his song of tribute to the Al-mighty G-d, the Torah, in Exodus 15:20, reports, וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ, וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת , Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. Miriam’s immortal words of song are recorded in Exodus 15:21, וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם,  שִׁירוּ לַהשׁם כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם , Miriam spoke up to them saying, “Sing to the L-rd for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled a horse with its rider into the sea.”

While the song that Moses sang at the sea is 19 verses in length, Miriam’s song consists of only a single verse.

Our rabbis regard the brevity of Miriam’s song as a sign that the women were far more spiritual than the men.

The Talmud, in Sotah 11b, teaches, “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, were the Children of Israel redeemed from Egypt.” The women never lost their faith during the challenging years of slavery and oppression. Throughout the years of hardship, the women had much greater faith than the men that there would be an eventual redemption.

Rashi in his comments on Exodus 15:20, cites the Mechilta that teaches that the righteous women of that generation were so confident that G-d would perform miracles and that He would redeem His people, that they prepared drums to take out of Egypt with them to use when singing G-d’s praises.

The Shelah HaKadosh cites the Torah’s use in Exodus 15:21, of the masculine form, לָהֶםla’hem (and Miriam answered them) as proof that the level of the women’s spirituality was “at least” equal to the level of men’s.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (Sichos, Shabbos parshas Beshalach 5741) suggests that the fact that every single Jewish woman had a tambourine, even though there might have only been one to a household, emphasizes the women’s great faith. Similarly, the fact that the women did not rely only on Miriam their leader to lead them with a tambourine, confirms their deep faith even more. Very often members of a faith community rely on their religious leaders to show the great passion, thinking that the leaders’ passion would represent the rest of them. The women at the time of the exodus would have none of that. They made certain to obtain drums and tambourines themselves, not relying on Miriam.

The Iturei Torah cites Rabbi Y.L. Graubart saying that Miriam was the first woman to raise the standard of women’s rights. She was the first to lead the women out of the tent, publicly express their feelings of happiness and joy together with the men, at this momentous occasion of redemption. That is why, says Rabbi Graubart, Miriam is identified in the Torah as the “Prophetess, the sister of Aaron,” rather than the sister of Moses, because it is Aaron who sacrificed offerings, representing both men and women, without distinguishing between males and females.

The Chatam Sofer points out that regarding the men, the Torah states (Exodus 14:31), וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּהשׁם וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ , that the Israelites believed in G-d and in Moses His servant. The men saw Moses as a representative of G-d, who performed miracles for them. That is why, when Moses’ return from Mount Sinai was perceived as delayed (Exodus 32:1), the men immediately ran to find a replacement in the form of the Golden Calf.

In stark contrast, the women always had faith in Miriam, the prophetess, even though she did not perform miracles like Moses. That is why the women were not seduced by the Golden Calf, knowing that even without Miriam, other leaders and prophets could emerge to effectively lead the people. In fact, Miriam is identified here as the sister of Aaron rather than the sister of Moses to underscore that her power of prophecy preceded Moses. According to tradition it was Miriam who prophesied that a redeemer would come to Israel and it was she who encouraged her father, Amram to reunite with her mother, Yocheved. It was due to her intervention that Moses was born.

The Torah clearly states (Deuteronomy 34:10), וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה , that no prophet has ever risen or will ever arise, who will be as great as Moses. But, it cannot be denied that the special wisdom with which G-d endowed Miriam had a more profound impact on the women, than the impact that Moses had on the men.

If we truly hope to maintain our exalted spiritual status, it is the intuitive spirituality reflected in Miriam that our people must learn to value, and attempt to replicate in our own lives.

May you be blessed.

Shabbat Shira

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the Shira, the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.