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Femininity at the Sea

Posted on י״ג בשבט ה׳תש״ע (January 28, 2010) | in Beshalach | by

“And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took the tambourine in her hand and she went out with all the women after her in music and dancing. And Miriam answered them, “Sing to HaShem, for He is greater than the great, horse and rider He has plunged into the sea!” (Exodus 15;20-21)

After Moshe sings the Shiras HaYam (Song of the Sea) celebrating HaShem’s victory over the pursuing Egyptian army, the Torah continues and describes how Miriam and the women of Israel react to the miracle of the Splitting Sea. These two short sentences are unique in their treatment of the women of Israel as a separate entity as opposed to the more standard Torah discussion of the collective male nation-unit. Yet the verses beg some questions.

In the first place, why is Miriam here identified as “the Prophetess”? Moshe is not usually identified as “Moshe the Prophet” nor are most personalities in the Torah that we otherwise know to be prophets identified as such in the text.

Secondly, where did Miriam and her fellow women get their tambourines? Can we really assume that the Jewish people, who were in such a rush to leave Egypt that they could not even wait for their dough to rise and hence made matzos instead of bread, had time to collect their musical instruments while leaving? And what were enslaved women doing with tambourines anyhow?

Thirdly, were the women singing and dancing in full view of the men? How is that considered modest?

Fourthly, the Hebrew language, unlike English, is a gendered language with different word forms for male and female verbs and nouns. The Hebrew words for “and Miriam answered them” are “Vata’an lahem Miriam” – “lahem,” meaning “to them,” is here rendered in the masculine plural form. If Miriam was speaking to the Jewish women, why did she use the male form of the verb and not the female?

The Kli Yakar, a sixteenth century scholar appointed to the Chief Rabbinate of Prague after the death of the Maharal, has some interesting things to say on these two verses that both explain and intensify our original four questions. Miriam, he says, is known as “the Prophetess” here because this is the moment when she finally reached the level of prophecy. First she reached this great spiritual level and then all the women of Israel followed suit. At the point where the women are singing and dancing with Miriam to God, they are all prophetesses! This is indicated in the Rabbis’ observation in the Mechilta that “even a maidservant at the Sea saw more of God’s Shechinah than the great prophet Yechezkel.”

Yet the Kli Yakar wonders why it is noteworthy that all the Jewish women received the gift of prophecy at the splitting of the sea. Did it never happen before? Indeed, he explains that the gift of prophecy can only rest amidst simcha. Simcha is commonly translated as happiness, but really implies a more spiritual tranquility than the simple English word connotes. Because of the pain of childbirth that all women collectively share, no woman had ever been happy enough to receive prophecy from God.

The observation is interesting, even disturbing, but also seemingly inaccurate. We know that the matriarch Sarah was a prophetess; in addition, she is included in the list of the seven most prominent prophetesses of biblical times, thus implying that she was not the only exception to this strange statement about the effect of childbirth pain on Jewish women. The Talmud in Megillah 14a states that twice as many prophets existed in the land of Israel as people who left Egypt. Now 600,000 men of census age left Egypt. That puts a minimum estimate of total Jewish prophets at over a million. Is it really statistically probably that none of those million people were women?

In order to better understand Miriam herself, as well as the Jewish women in Egypt, let us return to slavery. More than eighty years before the Exodus, Pharaoh summoned the Jewish midwives and ordered them to murder all newborn Jewish males. Mothers were faced with two choices: if they gave birth to sons, their sons would either be murdered or, if they miraculously survived, enslaved, and if they gave birth to daughters, what future would those daughters have with no Jewish males to marry? They would likely end up appropriated by the Egyptian men, raped physically and spiritually in an ancient world were women were entirely absorbed into their husband’s families and cultures.

Yet these midwives risked their lives and defied Pharaoh’s orders, purposely arriving late so that they missed their chance at killing the babies at birth as Pharaoh had ordered them to do. Both the midwives and the Jewish mothers acted courageously for years, giving birth to their children in secrecy and silence, desperately hiding their sons, continuing to procreate in the face of depressing and seemingly endless slavery. It adds much romance to the picture when we consider the Midrash that identifies Miriam herself as one of these courageous midwives.

Perhaps what the Kli Yakar is commenting on here is not the permanent and existential harshness of female existence as evidenced by the pain of childbirth, but the essential nature of femininity. The Egyptian slavery was difficult for the entire nation, true, but it was the women who were at risk of losing the children that they carried for nine months. It was the women who sacrificed to keep their marriages active (see the incident of the Kior, Rashi Exodus 28;8), the women who bolstered their husbands’ depressed spirits, and the women who defied Pharaoh’s murderous decree. The women felt the pain of slavery the most, but they also looked forward to redemption the most. They brought their musical instruments, carefully preserved and handed down through the generations, with them out of Egypt despite the rush of the Exodus, because they had complete confidence in God’s miracles. They knew HaShem would continue to protect them and therefore they took instruments of praise with them so that when the time came, they would have music with which to praise and thank God (Rashi 15;20).

The Talmud acknowledges the great role that the Jewish women played in the Exodus from Egypt when they note that it was “in the merit of the righteous women that our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt and in the merit of righteous women that we will ultimately be redeemed.” (The connection between the Exodus from Egypt and the ultimate Redemption at the end of days, particularly vis-a-vis women, will become more apparent as we delve deeper into the Kli Yakar and our understanding of these verses.)

Thus the Kli Yakar is not stating that the fact of “tzaar laidah” – the existence of childbirth pains – precludes any woman from ever becoming a prophetess. Instead, he is saying that the maternal nature inherent to women, the fact that it is only women who can have children, renders them more attuned to suffering and more able to empathize with other’s pain and with their own pain than men.

Indeed, it is the Shechinah that we speak of as being the aspect of God that is “in pain” when Israel suffers and it is the Shechinah that is the feminine representation of Godliness. HaShem is a He, but the Shechinah is a She. And it is the Shechinah that with its femininity and motherliness feels the pain of its people and its children. Women in Egypt could not bring themselves to the point of spiritual tranquility necessary for receiving prophecy because they felt their people’s pain too much, they empathized and internalized emotion too much to be able to feel true simcha. It was only at the miracle of the Sea that Miriam, the courageous midwife, was able to lead the Jewish women out of their people’s pain and into happiness and union with the Shechinah. The women’s song at the sea was feminine meeting feminine as they joined in simcha with the Shechinah manifestation of God and finally merited the spiritual high of prophecy.

The Kli Yakar is then explaining as well why the Torah here uses the masculine verb form “vata’an lahem Miriam” to describe Miriam’s address to the women. It is only at this point in the Exodus that the women are able to shed their pain and put their far-seeing belief in HaShem’s salvation into practice. Their femininity and empathy no longer gets in the way of their ability to connect to God on a simcha level, therefore the Torah highlights this by using a masculine verb form for the collective women of Israel rather than a feminine verb form.

“So it will be at the end of days,” concludes the Kli Yakar, “as it says [in Yirmiyahu 31;22] “and the woman will encircle the man…” The Kli Yakar’s conclusion here answers our final unanswered question vis-a-vis the women’s modesty in dancing in public. The idea of women encircling men at the end of days, meaning the time before Mashiach, is a general indication of the different sort of existence that will occur immediately preceding the ultimate redemption. The music and dancing of the women at the Sea is linked to the ultimate encircling of men by women at the end of days by Rashi himself, who explains that the women were dancing “circle dances” in their celebration at the Sea. Kabbalistically, a circle is the most spiritual of all shapes as there is no one point that can be closer to the center than any other point. It implies ultimate equality of humanity before God, as all people equally encircle God’s central point in the dance of spirituality (The Moon’s Lost Light). Hence the traditional Jewish folk dances being circle dances.

Yirmiyahu’s prophecy implies that in our imperfect world before the coming of Mashiach, women and men are unequal. Yet as the world approaches the end of days, we will start righting ourselves by slowly equalizing the disparity between men and women. The circle dances of the women at the Sea preempted the spiritual and social equality of the end of days, making the women of equal prophetic level with the men and suspending the sexually imposed ideas and standards of modesty, thus allowing the women to dance and sing publicly in pure spiritual gratefulness and communion with HaShem.

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