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In this week’s Parsha, we encounter Miriam’s famous song at the sea, the song she sings in praise and thanksgiving after the destruction of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds. But there are some strange things about this song.
First of all, why did Miriam need to sing it? In the verses right before Miriam’s song, we’re told that the entire Jewish people sang a song of thanksgiving. Why wasn’t that enough? Why did Miriam feel a need to take all the women aside and sing her own song of thanksgiving? It wasn’t good enough for everyone to do this together? We have other examples of songs of thanksgiving, actually involving men and women. Devorah, later on in the book of Judges, after her great victory over the forces of Sisera, she leads everyone in song. But over here it is not good enough to have one song for everyone. Everyone sings their song and then Miriam has to sing her song. Why?
The answer I think is given to us in an oblique comment made by the Sages in Shemot Rabbah. Chazal also wondered about Miriam’s song. They wonder about how she is introduced, how the Torah introduces her to us just before she sings it. “Vatikach Miriam ha-n’viah achot Aharon et-ha-tof b’yadah.” The language of the verse is that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrels in her hands and then she sang the song.” But listen to that introduction: ‘And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron.’ We know two things about her; that she was a prophet and that she was the sister of Aaron. But why do we need to know those things? Why does Miriam being a prophetess uniquely qualify her to sing this song? And what do you mean that she was the sister of Aaron? She was the sister of both Aaron and Moshe.
Chazal say a fascinating thing. They say, if you want to understand why Miriam sings this song, you need to understand two things. A. that she was a Prophetess; and B. that she had a prophecy when she was just the sister of Aaron and not yet of Moshe because Moshe had not yet been born. Indeed, it was a prophecy about the birth of Moshe. If you understand that prophecy, you will understand the song. And here is the story they tell.
When Pharaoh had decreed that all Jewish male children should be thrown into the Nile immediately after birth, the man and woman—who would become the parents of Moshe—separated from each other and didn’t want to have any more children. Why bother? The child is just going to die anyway. But Miriam their daughter had a prophecy. That prophecy was: my mother is going to give birth to the savior of the Jewish people and she told that prophecy to her parents and her parents reunited.
Now picking up from chapter two in the Exodus, verse two “v’tahar ha-ishah vatelech ben,” and the woman conceived and gave birth to a child, “va’tere oto ki-tov,” and she saw that the child was good. Of course, the first time we hear those words “ki-tov” in the Torah was when God made light and he saw the light was good. So the Sages say here too, when she saw that the child was “ki-tov,” a miraculous light filled the room to signify the birth of a special child. Chazal say that when the light filled the room, Miriam’s parents came and kissed her and said “biti” our daughter, “nitkayemah nevuatech,” the prophecy evidently has been fulfilled.
But it’s never that simple. “Vatitzp’nehu shlosha yrachim,” the mother of the child then hid the child for three full months. “V’lo yachla od hatzpino,” but she couldn’t continue hiding the child, the child’s cries would be heard, Pharaoh’s troops were everywhere looking for Jewish children to kill. And at that moment “vatikach-lo tavat gome,” she took a pitiful little box, “vatachmrah vachamer u’b’zefet,” and she slathered it with pitch, “vatasom ba et-ha-yeled,” and she placed the child in the box, “vatasom ba’suf al-sfat ha-y’or,” and she placed the child in the reeds next to the shore of the river.
Now, if you were the mother of the child at that time, what would you give the chances of success of this plan of yours? You are going to put this defenseless child out there by the Nile where all the Egyptians are. Pharaoh has decreed that all Jewish baby boys should be thrown in the Nile. What are the chances that this child lives? Now let me ask you another question. Could you watch what happens next? Most of us couldn’t watch. But someone watched. The next words of the verse “vatetatzev achoto me-rachok l’de’a ma-ye’ase lo,” but his sister, Miriam, stood from afar to see what would be with him. Chazal say she wanted to know what would be with her prophecy.
Now, if you stopped Miriam and you asked her, ‘explain to me, how is this going to happen? How do you think this child could possibly live?’ What would Miriam says? Miriam doesn’t know, but what she does know is this: just because I can’t figure it out, doesn’t mean there is no way that this child can’t be saved. God has ways.
And look at the next verse “vatered bat-Par’oh lirchotz al-ha-y’or,” the daughter of Pharaoh comes. Stop right there! If you don’t know what happens next, is the daughter of Pharaoh coming good news or bad news? I mean, this is the worst possible person who could come, the daughter of the man who decreed genocide upon the Jews, killing every Jewish male. But, of course, the daughter of Pharaoh become the savior.
So Miriam, reading the uncertainty in her eyes says, can I call a Jewish woman to nurse this child for you? And the daughter of Pharaoh says “yes.” And Miriam standing from a far, watching to see what sort of miracle God could perform actually becomes the agent of salvation itself. Listen to those words “vatetatzev achoto me-rachok l’de’a ma-ye’ase lo,” and she stood from afar to see what would be with him. And she stood from afar, “vatetatzev achoto me-rachok.” Where else do we hear words like that?
Fast-forward to the Jews at the Sea of Reeds. Picture the scene, there is a huge body of water and the dominant natural feature is Reeds. There are horses belonging to Pharaoh, chariots, cavalry, with soldiers, all converging upon the people. It’s like it’s all happening again. One Jew Moshe was threatened by one Egyptian, the daughter of Pharaoh, by a river, while he was in the reeds. And now it’s not just a river, it’s a whole sea and it's just a couple bulrushes, it’s a whole Sea of Reeds, and now it’s not just one Jew that’s threatened, it’s an entire Jewish people that’s threatened. And not just threatened by one particular Egyptian, but the whole army of Egypt. And what does Moshe say “vayomer Moshe el-ha-am,” Moshe says to the people “al-tira’u,” don’t be afraid, “hityatzvu u’r’u et-yeshuat HaShem,” stand and watch the salvation that God will perform. It’s the same words; it’s exactly what Miriam did.
“How are you going to get out of this?” Moshe says to the people, “you are going to do exactly what Miriam did. It’s just a replay of my experience with Miriam at the national level. If we are going to get out of this alive, you need to do what Miriam did: stand and watch.” Moshe does not tell them what is going to happen. They do not know the sea is going to split—it is a test of their faith. The question is can you be like Miriam? Miriam did not know where the salvation was going to come about. All she knew is that she had a promise that it would. And when doom seemed certain, she did not avert her eyes, she stood and watched. Moshe is asking the same thing of the Jews right now. Doom seems certain, but you have a promise from God, it is going to be okay. So stand and watch too. Have faith like Miriam did.
And when they do, and when the sea splits, of course Miriam sings. What was her prophecy after all? ‘My mother is going to give birth to the child who is going to save the Jewish people.’ When did Moshe become confirmed really as the one who saved the Jewish people? After the destruction of the entire of army of Pharaoh at the Sea of Reeds. This is the moment that her prophecy comes true. And how did her prophecy come true? It came true through the people evincing the same faith that Miriam herself had back at the Nile. When they experienced what she experienced at the macrocosmic level and they got through it, through the faith that she taught them. It’s not enough for everyone to sing, Miriam has to sing her song too.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Jacob's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Vayechi: Who is Joseph's Real Father?
13. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
14. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
15. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
16. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
17. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
18. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
19. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
20. Ki Tisa: Epilogue
21. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
22. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
23. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
24. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
25. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
26. Metzora: Living Within the Community
27. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
28. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
29. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
30. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
31. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
32. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
33. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
34. Korach: Can We Influence God?
35. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
36. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
37. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
38. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
39. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
40. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
41. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 1/2
42. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 2/2
43. Re'eh: The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
44. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
45. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
46. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
47. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 1/2
48. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 2/2
49. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 1/2
50. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 2/2
51. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
52. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
53. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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