This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, "Sabbath of Song," because on it we read/chant the epic poem, Shirat HaYam, "Song at the Sea," contained in the Torah portion B'shalach. The musical/poetic nature of the sabbath is compounded with the haftarah portion including Shirat D'vorah, "Song of Deborah" within the selected passage from the Book of Judges.
One can imagine ancient storytellers/troubadours entertaining their audiences with these song-poems, retelling the tales of heroism and victory with complex language, rhythm, and repetition. After a few hearings, the people would join in on the verses they remembered:
Mi chamochah ba-eilim Adonai? "Who is like You, Eternal One, among the celestials?" (Exodus 15:11)
Uri uri D'vorah, uri uri dabri-shir! "Rouse yourself, Deborah, rouse yourself, rouse yourself and sing a song!" (Judges 5:12)
Someone would pick up a drum, another a tambourine, and they would begin to sway and dance and clap to the beat. The story would become their story, and the song, their song.
Our Torah text tells of the Israelites' miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and the defeat of their Egyptian pursuers. What was their reaction? We read:
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal. They said:
"I will sing to the Eternal for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
The Eternal is my strength and might;
He is become my deliverance.
This is my God and I will enshrine Him;
The God of my ancestors, and I will exalt Him.
The Eternal, the Warrior—
Eternal One is His name!" (Exodus 15:1-3)
In case a reader couldn't tell from three forms of the word shir, "song/poem," in the first verse alone (yashir, "sang"; hashirah, "the song"; ashirah, "I will sing"), the text itself is written in poetic stanzas in the Torah. The phrases are spaced to stand out, and the short clusters make the phrases look like waves upon the sea. It is a song of victory that glorifies the defeat and death of the Egyptians. These are not peaceful waves lapping upon the shore; these are mighty waves that engulf and destroy the enemy. God is presented as Adonai ish milchamah, literally, "YHVH is a man of war."
After the song ends, the text continues:
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron's sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam chanted for them:
"Sing to the Eternal, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea." (Exodus 15:20-21)
That is all that the Torah gives us of Miriam's song. We do not know if the rest was lost or if the chant continued wordlessly or if that is all that there was. Miriam's song was missing until our own day. It took a modern Miriam, Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, to re-create the song with words and melody and rhythm, and to let the women and men of our day dance and celebrate the ancient story. Debbie's words have even found their way into our prayer book, Mishkan T'filah on page 646.1 They express the joy of the women who had just crossed the sea on dry land. My favorite line is the last one: "We've just lived through a miracle, we're going to dance tonight!"
We learn more about Miriam in Ellen Frankel's book, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah.2 She asks why, if Miriam "plays such a critical role in the Exodus from Egypt, she remains nameless until this parashah." We read:
Miriam answers: My name is an amalgam of two Hebrew words—mar, meaning "bitter," and yam, meaning "sea." My life was indeed bitter, like the waters we encountered after crossing the Sea of Reeds, as it is written: "They could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was called Marah." (15:23) I was always overshadowed by my younger brothers. It was they who faced Pharaoh, who invoked the deadly plagues on Egypt, who met with God and inspired the people. And I was consigned to silence. And when at last I rose up with Aaron to demand that my youngest brother share the leadership with us, it was I alone who was stricken with leprosy.
My name, like me, arose out of Egypt. Miriam is derived from the Egyptian word mer, meaning "beloved." Indeed, the people loved me, especially on account of the miraculous well, which sustained them during their forty years in the wilderness.3
Frankel's modern midrash provides the details of Miriam's story that are missing from the Torah. Debbie Friedman's modern song completes the Torah's song fragment. Both are examples of how women's voices of our day can fill in the blanks left in a Torah written by men. The Torah: A Women's Commentary gives us brilliant commentary and beautiful poetry to fill that void. As Rabbi Ruth Sohn concludes her poem, "The Song of Miriam":
And the song—
the song rises again.
Out of my mouth
come words lifting the wind.
And I hear
for the first time
that has been in my heart
even to me.4
Debbie Friedman, "Miriam's Song," in Elyse D. Frishman, ed., Mishkan T'filah (NY: CCAR, 2007), p. 646
Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah (NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1996), p. 112
Ibid., p. 113
Ruth Sohn, "Song of Miriam," in Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., Andrea L. Weiss, assoc. ed., The Torah: A Women's Commentary (NY: WRJ and URJ Press, 2008), p. 406
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.