Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemot’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
After recording the triumphant song offered by “Moshe and the children of Israel” on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, the Torah states: “And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took the drum in her hand; and all the women went out after her with drums and with dances. And Miriam sang unto them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea.’ ”
Although Miriam has appeared in the text before, this marks the first time that she is mentioned by name. She must, therefore, be clearly identified.
Why, however, is she referred to specifically as “the prophetess, the sister of Aharon”? According to rabbinic tradition, Sara was also a prophetess; yet, the text never identifies her as such. Also, why isn’t Miriam described as the sister of Moshe as well as the sister of Aharon?
What is the nature of the song offered by Miriam and by the women on the banks of the Reed Sea? Is this a separate paean, different from the one chanted by “Moshe and the children of Israel”? If not, why does the Torah mention it?
If Miriam’s song is unique, what is its message?
Concerning the designation of Miriam as “the prophetess, the sister of Aharon,” a number of explanations are offered by the commentaries.
Rashi, quoting the Talmud, maintains that Miriam’s prophetic ability was evidenced before Moshe was born, when she was only “Aharon’s sister.” At that time, she predicted, “My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will be the redeemer of Israel.”
Alternatively, continues Rashi, Miriam is identified as Aharon’s sister because Aharon is destined, at a later time, to struggle on her behalf. When Miriam is punished with leprosy for speaking ill of Moshe, Aharon pleads with Moshe to intercede for her welfare.
The Rashbam, as is his wont, adopts the path of pshat and maintains that Miriam is referred to as the sister of Aharon simply because Aharon is the firstborn.
The Ramban entertains the same approach as the Rashbam but prefers a different explanation: the text wants to ensure that all three siblings – Aharon, Miriam and Moshe – are mentioned in conjunction with the song at the Reed Sea. Miriam is therefore specifically referred to as the sister of Aharon, who would otherwise not be cited.
Finally, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch argues that Miriam occupied the same position among the women that Aharon occupied among the men. They both acted as Moshe’s emissaries, carrying his messages to the people. Miriam is, therefore, referred to as the sister of her counterpart, Aharon.
While the above commentators discuss why Miriam is referred to as Aharon’s sister, they fail to explain why she is specifically identified as a “prophetess” in this context.
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin suggests that Miriam’s prophetic vision centered on the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. The Torah therefore refers to Miriam’s prophetic ability only now, after that redemption is complete.
Perhaps the key to Miriam’s identification as a prophetess lies in the nature and significance of her “song.”
Does Miriam’s song add a new, prophetic dimension to the events at the Sea of Reeds?
A review of the traditional sources would seem to indicate that the answer is no. Most scholars do not envision a substantial difference between the song of Moshe and the song of Miriam.
Some commentaries, for example, such as the Chizkuni, reflect an earlier Midrashic tradition that Miriam led the women in a repetition of the entire text of Moshe’s song after the men had finished.
Other scholars, including the Ramban, maintain that Miriam and the women did not sing a separate song, at all. Miriam instructed the women to echo the words as they were chanted by Moshe and the men.
A careful reading of the following hints in the text, however, reveals another possible approach.
1. Only one sentence is recorded in the Torah as the text of Miriam’s song; it is a subtle variation on the first sentence of Moshe’s song:
Moshe: “I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea.”
Miriam: “Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea.”
2. As soon as Miriam concludes her song, the text states, Vayasa Moshe et Yisrael mi’Yam Suf, “And Moshe caused Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds.”
As a rule, when the Torah speaks of the nation’s journeys in the desert, the text simply states, Vayisu B’nai Yisrael, “And the children of Israel journeyed.” Why does the Torah specifically state at this point that Moshe “caused Israel to journey”?
Perhaps Miriam “the prophetess,” the individual who, according to rabbinic tradition, was instrumental in convincing her father to move forward in the face of Pharaoh’s decrees, now plays a pivotal role in urging the Israelites to move forward from the site of their full redemption from Egypt?
Miriam’s admonition could be imagined as follows: “Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea.” Moshe, you and the men sing eloquently of future dreams:
I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted…; Peoples heard and they were agitated, terror gripped the dwellers of Philistia. Then the chieftains of Edom were astounded, trembling gripped the powers of Moav, all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away. May fear and terror fall upon them…until Your people passes through, Lord, until this people that You have acquired passes through. Bring them and plant them on the Mount of Your Sanctuary, the foundation of Your holy place that You, Lord, have made – the holy place, Lord, that Your hands established. The Lord shall reign for all eternity!
These dreams will only be realized, however, if we stop singing and move on. After all, all that has happened so far is, “the horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea.”
Have we achieved our heritage? Has God given us the Torah? Have we entered our land? All of these challenges yet lie before us; and they will only be met if we move forward from the banks of this Sea.
So sing, yes, but with open eyes: “the horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea.” Then, let the song end and let us move on.
In response to Miriam’s song, the text relates: “And Moshe caused Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds.” Understanding and acknowledging his sister’s message, Moshe forces a reluctant nation to end their celebration and move forward from the sea.
Had it not been for Miriam and her song, perhaps we would still be dancing and singing at the banks of the Sea of Reeds.
Points to Ponder
As the initial phases of our nation’s journey continue to unfold, eternal lessons are transmitted with each step.
The ability to move on, to celebrate but not be paralyzed by achievement, will prove to be a critical skill, essential to our success across the ages.
For example, in our time, the creation of the State of Israel, after centuries of diaspora existence and in the shadow of the Holocaust, was nothing less than a monumental, miraculous achievement. Acknowledgement and celebration are certainly warranted. Sometimes, however, you can celebrate too long…
A number of years ago, however, during a discussion on Israel-diaspora relations, an official of the Israeli government complained to me: “Too many American Jews think that we are still dancing the hora and draining the swamps. They are blind to the changes taking place within the Zionist enterprise and to the complex internal and external challenges that we currently face.”
No matter how great the achievement, celebration must invariably yield to challenge. If we “celebrate” too long, if we remain rooted in the glow of past accomplishments, we endanger those very accomplishments.
Only by moving forward, only by discerning and meeting new challenges that develop by the day, can we preserve the past even as we secure the future.