Perhaps the oldest bit of musical liturgy we have is Miriam’s Song. Parshat Beshalach notes both a stanza of lyrics and the antiphonal (call and response) form. While this song is the oldest recorded Jewish song, it certainly wasn’t the first. What led up to that moment of spontaneous praise on the shore of the Sea of Reeds, and how can we live it today?
Miriam was born at a difficult time. A narcissistic despot burdened her people with slavery. While she was young, Pharaoh decreed that all male Israelite babies should be killed. Imagine the turmoil – the troubled soldiers sent to drown the infants, the demoralized pregnant women and sorrowing new mothers terrified for their children’s safety. Yet the Talmud states that Miriam prophesied the birth of Moses and spoke of his specific purpose.
I am sure Yocheved sang lullabies as she placed Moses in the basket on the Nile. Imagine placing your three month old son on the Ohio, filled with hippos, crocodiles, barges, bathers, laundresses, etc. Would you have Yocheved’s faith, the strength to let him go? Miriam followed her brother to the steps of the palace, where Bat Pharaoh was bathing with her attendants. When Miriam saw Bat Pharaoh take the baby as her own (defying her father’s edict), she stepped forward into the presence of royalty and boldly asked if she could provide a Hebrew nursemaid.
I don’t think Miriam considered herself brave. Her faith was absolute; she knew what her baby brother meant to her people. The survival of one boy was a beacon of hope! Imagine Yocheved’s relief and joy at being able to nurse and raise her son! Within the palace walls, surrounded by foreign music, beliefs, and culture, a Hebrew mother rocked her baby and sang him the songs of his people.
Many years passed; Miriam’s details are lost to us. It is possible that while Moses and Aaron were demanding freedom, Miriam was composing a song to sing on the day of their deliverance. When it finally came, the word spread like wildfire: pack everything. We’re leaving now. Screams and wails erupted from the Egyptian community, filling the night. The Israelites left amidst the keening of bereft mothers, as they had once cried for their sons.
Picture millions of people streaming into the dark streets: babies crying, animals calling, parents trying to keep their children close, the throng growing dense, no time to bake bread, no clear destination. The frightening sound of a grief stricken and angry army swiftly approached. In the midst of this chaos, the Israelite women kept their instruments close at hand. When nothing – not even their survival or successful flight from Egypt – was certain, they had faith that they would have cause to celebrate. Their absolute conviction lay in Adonai. It was an unspoken promise that would be sealed at Sinai. Adonai will lead us and we will live to sing of his redeeming power. “A great responsibility is ours, and Yours as well, for if You do not sustain us…then who will sing Your praises?” (pg. 49, Mishkan Tefilah)
“The Rabbis state: ‘When Israel sang a song at their deliverance from Pharaoh’s host at the Sea of Reeds, even the sucklings and the unborn in their mother’s wombs raised their voices in praise.’” (The Complete Book of Jewish Observance, Leo Trepp, pg. 23)
Moses led the multitude of men in a call and response song. Miriam and hundreds of thousands of women answered, body and soul, expressing gratitude and elation with voice, instrument, and dance. Their faith had been rewarded, their freedom finally won.
Each year we are invited to experience Pesach as if it happened to us. I invite you to experience Mi Chamocha as if you were singing on the shore where we first tasted freedom. “…Celebrate this power that makes for freedom”, not only at Kabbalat Shabbat, but every time you sing. The Rabbis asked: Why is the song of Miriam only partially stated in the Torah? And in midrash is found the answer: the song is incomplete so that future generations will finish it. That is our task.