Kol Isha: The voice of self-sacrifice

Perhaps Moses wrote the words of the Song of the Sea, but Miriam was the one to set the tone and tune.

April 2, 2010 16:21
4 minute read.
The Finding of Moses by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1904

finding of moses painting 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

On the seventh and final day of Pessah we commemorate the historic splitting of the sea by reciting the Song of the Sea, sung by Israel in awe and praise of this miracle. Immediately after the song, the Torah describes the song of Miriam, who “took the tambourine in her hand,” followed by the women who went out “with tambourines and dancing.”

However, this mention of Miriam and her entourage seems slightly off key; there is no indication in the text that the men and women were separated throughout the splitting of the sea, or during the song that followed. If the women participated in the song along with the rest of Israel, as the inclusive term Children of Israel implies, why the special mention? Additionally, the song the women recite adds nothing to the content of the song Moses had authored. They sing: “I sing to God, for he is highly exalted, horse and rider He has thrown in the sea” – the exact words with which Moses begins his poem.

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A close read reveals that the addition is not in the form of content, rather in the unique style offered by Miriam and the women. Instruments are added into the mix, as is dance. Perhaps Moses wrote the words of the Song of the Sea, but Miriam was the one to set the tone and tune for this song, to choreograph and dance to its music.

This role played by Miriam and the women concludes the story of the Exodus, mirroring the active role of women who initiated this very process. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the birth of Moses is prefaced and surrounded by three stories starring women, who set the tone for the rising of the redeeming leader. First, we are told of two midwives, who are faced with a direct command by Pharaoh to kill every Hebrew male they birth. Despite the danger to their own lives in going against a direct command, the women decide to take the moral high ground, and avoid killing the male babies. This preface is an important description of the very world Moses was born into: A world of great peril and evil, but also a world where God fearing people will do the right thing against all odds.

We are then told of the daughter of Levi, who decides to sacrifice her own relationship with her baby, and counterintuitively send him away to save his life. A famous midrash expands on this point and tells the story of Moses’s parents, who decide to separate, avoiding relations, so that they do not have to be faced with the difficulty of watching their son die at the hands of the Egyptians. According to the midrash, Miriam objects to her parent’s decision, and scolds them for expanding Pharaoh’s edict to include the girls as well. Her reprimand leads to the conception of Moses, and the self sacrifice of his mother, willing to part from him for the chance that his life might be spared. Miriam plays a role here as well, watching over him from afar to see how events will unfold.

Baby Moses is discovered in his ark by no other than Pharaoh’s daughter. She is fully aware, as the Torah states, that the child is a Hebrew; in fact, at Miriam’s suggestion she hires his mother to nurse him. Being the daughter of Pharaoh, she is no doubt also fully aware of her father’s edict, and of the consequences of going against the king’s command. Nonetheless, she decides to save the child and raise him as her own.

The suffering of the Children of Israel in Egypt is intermingled with the perspective, foresight and initiative of women, who were willing, despite imminent peril, to do the right thing. Although Moses is the one chosen to redeem the nation from the claws of Egypt, it is these women who set the tone for the uprising of morality and justice. The women represent the voice of self-sacrifice, of setting their sights beyond the here-and-now. Their early intervention resonates through Moses’s words to Pharaoh, and through his teachings to the weary and stubborn nation.

There is no more appropriate ending for the story of the exodus from Egypt than a special mention of the women. The women, who wrote the tune to Moses’s words, before he was even able to speak, have no need to change the content. Their song adds a dimension which goes beyond words. At the end of the story, at the end of the day, it is their song which lingers.

The writer  is a lecturer at Matan and holds a master’s degree in Bible and exegesis from Matan and the University of Haifa. She is a freelance writer and professional translator, and a yoetzet Halacha in her community. She resides in Alon Shvut with her husband and four children.

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