This portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), also known as Shabbat Shirah – the Sabbath of Song on account that the Song of the Sea is in this portion. In our daily prayers, each morning and each evening, Jews pray a line from the Song of the Sea, Mi Chamocha, “Who is like you?” Who is like You, Adonai, among the gods? who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders” (15:11)? It is part of the song the Israelites sang after the crossing of the sea. Leading up to these lines, we chant in our prayers, “Moses and the children of Israel sang the song with great joy.” The traditional prayers speak of the songs of the men.
But of course, the Torah itself does not simply speak of the men singing. Miriam was the leader of the women. She took the women aside with tambourines and led the women in the same Song of the Sea. The Reform Movement has changed the wording of the prayer. “Moses and Miriam and the children of Israel sang the song with great joy.” This change has entered the newest version of the Conservative prayer book. Miriam is mentioned along with Moses; the voices of the women are mentioned with the voices of the men.
The Orthodox see this as proof that men and women should be separated in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues men and women are not allowed to pray together. A separation (mekhitza) must be set up between the men and women, or else the women must be upstairs in a balcony. Of course, in the Orthodox world the voice of the women could not be heard. The Talmud says that kol isha erva, “a woman’s singing voice is considered nakedness.” (Berachot 14a) But the passage in the Torah does not see the women as silent. On the contrary, Miriam took tambourines, sang and danced, and made sure the voices of the women were heard.
Miriam was hardly the example of a traditional, passive woman. Legend has it that her parents divorced after Pharaoh’s decree to cast the baby boys into the river. Miriam convinced her parents to come back together, leading to the birth of Moses. Later she followed baby Moses down the river until the daughter of Pharaoh found him. She brought her mother as a wet nurse for the baby. Even as a young woman Miriam was already showing leadership. Her leadership of the people would continue throughout her life.
Miriam is proof that the voice of women must be heard. For too long, not just Judaism but most major religions silenced the voices of half their population. Today there are new Torah commentaries being written by women. There are women being trained as scholars of Jewish law, not just among Reform and Conservative Movement, but even in the Orthodox community. Women have voices that need to be heard. We have silenced them for too long.
Miriam led the women in prayer. She did it with music and with joy. She has become a symbol of the voice of women, which need to be heard in every generation. She had a strength of character that made Jewish tradition call her Miriam the Prophetess. Later Jewish tradition would speak of the miracle of Miriam’s well, which kept the Israelites from thirst as they wandered through the desert. Many Jews who want to modernize their Passover Seder pour a special cup of water for Miriam. Many modern Seders include a cup of wine for Elijah and a cup of water for Miriam. People buy a special cup, often decorated with women playing tambourines.
One of the great insights of modern Judaism is the way different movements, each in its own way, has opened up to the voices of women. It is the future of Judaism. In our own synagogue women read from the Torah and lead services. We even have a female cantor. Miriam is proof that Jewish tradition should have opened up to the voices of women long ago.