Most women – and men – are already exhausted long before the first Passover Seder: They have been cleaning, swapping sets of dishes, shopping for food and new clothes for children, inviting guests and accepting invitations – all before they even set foot in shul. Then, after they spend days creating or serving matza-based cakes, puddings, kugels and candies, entertaining guests and being entertained, their exhaustion has reached a fever pitch: “Will Passover ever end?” “Each year we leave Egypt, but each year we’re back there again. Will we ever really leave?”
Such exhaustion often allows for transcendent experiences. This is perfect, since the last days of Passover represent a mystical and messianic moment.
Sometimes an exhausted Jew can actually see the future and experience it with his or her whole being in the present. This is precisely what Miriam and the women did when they sang and danced with joy, accompanied by their drums or tambourines, in recognition of God’s miraculous redemption at the Reed Sea.
In Parshat Shmot, when Moses’s mother, Jochebed, puts him in a basket, she gently places him in the reeds (“v’tasam basuf”). He, that most Egyptian of Jews, the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, a veritable Prince of Egypt, begins his destined voyage in water, in the reeds. In Parshat Beshalah, God splits the Reed Sea – the yam suf. The next step of our journey is also through water and in the reeds.
The miracle of birth and rebirth and of ultimate redemption is associated with both terror and water.
This is something that women understand in their bodies. We risk death in bringing forth life, and in Egypt, Jewish slave women gave birth, knowing that they also risked losing their just-born sons to Pharaoh’s terrifying decree.
Safely on the other side of the Reed Sea, Moses and the people sing (ashira) in praise of God. Moses announces this song as a future intention. Perhaps he means: Get ready – we are going to sing a song of praise. We assume that both men and women sing together at this moment. Perhaps they did not. Then, amazingly, Miriam and the women separate themselves from the men and sing and dance with their drums or tambourines, which, it is said, they brought with them from Egypt because they had faith in God and miracles.
At this point, Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aharon, is finally named as a prophetess (haneviya) in the Torah, not only in the Midrash.
Miriam and the women dance in a circle, or in circles – “bimholot.”
Midrash teaches that the Jews crossed the sea in 12 tribal rows. But at this moment, the women do not separate themselves into tribes; instead, they create a new form of unity, a circle, in which every person is equal to every other. (See Maor Vashemesh by Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Epstein of Krakow on this verse.) According to some commentaries, the Shechina, God’s presence, was in the middle of this sacred circle, which enabled each woman to be equally close to the presence of God. Miriam and the women showed that it was possible to ignore differences and overcome tribal divisions in order to praise the “One God” Who had rescued them.
Some say that the women recognized God as the very God who had protected them in childbirth and that Miriam and the women could see far into the future at this transcendent moment. For them, in that moment, the past, the present and the future became one.
This is precisely what the Original Women of the Wall, those of us who wish to remain in the ezrat nashim (women’s section) at the Kotel, have been doing. Our all-female groups at the Kotel (not at Robinson’s Arch) have also crossed denominational barriers so we can pray together.
No matter how we pray – genders separated, genders together, denominations separated, denominations together – let us remember that when God sees us, God sees one people, one nation.
The Ba’al Shem Tov (to whom, I am proud to say, my son is related through his father), initiated a custom of dedicating the last feast of Passover to the Messiah. On the first night, we relive and celebrate our God-given redemption from Egypt. On the last night, we celebrate a future and final redemption.
I hope this heady, heavenly material helps elevate Passover exhaustion into a sense that not only do we see miracles every single day, but that many more miracles, as well as an ultimate redemption, are yet to come.
• This piece is dedicated to the writer’s dear hevruta and friend, Rivka Haut.