Beshallach/Shabbat Shirah: Leaders of Song

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

Winter has arrived but the Israelites are leaving- Mitzrayim/Egypt, that is, in this week’s Torah
portion, Beshallach. (Also called Shabbat Shirah, or the Shabbat of
Song, for reasons which will shortly be obvious.) The Israelites go in
a hurry but soon find themselves stuck with the Sea of Reeds in front
of them and Pharaoh’s army behind them. The waters part, the
Israelites cross, and the Egyptian army is drowned when they pursue
after the fleeing slaves. Afterwards, both Moshe and his big sister
Miriam sing songs of praise to God for the great miracle of liberation:

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aharon’s sister, took a timbrel in her
hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And
Miriam chanted for them:

‘Sing to the Lord, for The Almighty has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus
15:20-21)

Miriam’s song is short but its expression is interesting. The Hebrew
says “va’ta’an l’hem,” literally, she “answered to them,” but meaning
“called out to them” or as the JPS translates it, “chanted for them.”

Our medieval friend Rashi brings an earlier midrash to explain that
both Moshe and Miriam chanted the songs out loud and the people
repeated it back to them, “answering” the leader with the words of the
song. Picking up on this, the contemporary rabbinic scholar Adin
Steinsaltz, in his book Biblical Images, suggests that because Miriam
led the women in communal chanting and song, it proves her status as a
leader of the people in her own right.

To me, it’s obvious that Miriam is prominent among the Israelites, but
what’s more interesting about this line of interpretation is its
metaphor of leadership: the leader brings the people to song, brings
out their voice and helps them articulate their words of celebration
and hope. I love the image of Miriam and Moshe composing verses and
the people chanting them in response, for it suggests that Miriam and
Moshe were worthy to be leaders precisely because of their ability and
willingness to be creative and freely expressive with the people.

This, in turn, helps bring out the pent-up emotions waiting to be
expressed after years of oppression. Miriam’s leadership consisted not
of commands but of finding her voice so that she may help others bring
out their own. Seen this way, leadership can be understood as
consciously seeking to nurture the human potential of one’s
organization or community, and is practiced not only by great
prophets, but by ordinary humans who bring forth in others the song
within.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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