Women and Water at Heart of Exodus


As Beshalach opens, Moses is leading the people out of Egypt. Ten plagues have devastated the Egyptian people and the lush land.

As Beshalach opens, Moses is leading the people out of Egypt. Ten plagues have devastated the Egyptian people and the lush land; the final and most horrendous plague has left parents wailing over the sudden and unexplained deaths of their be­loved children. The Israelites must make haste to escape their neighbors’ wrath.

In spite of Moses’ reassurance to the people, the thundering hooves, clattering chariots and war cries of the pursuing Egyptians lead the people to cry out, “because there were not enough graves in Egypt, have you brought us to this wilderness to perish?” When the sea parts, the people somehow move forward between two towering walls of water. One by one, each of our ancestors found the strength to put one foot forward, and then another, and to walk away from slavery, and towards freedom.
When they reached dry land, they turned around and witnessed a terrible sight: The sea walls collapse, obliterating the pursuers, their chariots and their horses.
God purchased our freedom at great cost. Our ancestors responded with gratitude and faith: “Israel saw the work of God’s hand, and were in awe of the Holy One, and Moses, God’s servant.” And then, the text presents us with a powerful song.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shira, named for the song/poem at the heart of this portion. The first part of the song is well known, particularly to those who attend daily morning minyan, for it is included in its entirety in the liturgy.
These powerful words focus our attention on God’s power: “You made your wind blow, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the majestic waters. Who is like You, Holy One among the celestials; Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in splendor, working wonders!”
The rabbis have spent thousands of years discussing whether these 22 verses are one song or two, and whether it should be attributed to Moses or to Miriam, the siblings who, with their brother, Aaron, led the people out of Egypt. Did Moses begin the song, then Miriam added her voice? When did the people sing?
Professor Carol Meyers teaches, “Many modern scholars conclude that the song was created and performed by women. Beginning in the mid-20th century, a considerable body of literary, historical, sociological and musicological evidence has been amassed to suggest that the Song should be attributed to Miriam.”
She continues, “Just as women and water began the story of the liberation from Egypt, so too they bring it to its fulfillment …women and water frame the story of Israel’s beginnings … ”
This year, as we chant this song anew, let us listen for the music behind the trope, and the spirit that animates the words. Perhaps the song began when Miriam lifted her crystalline voice, and it soared above the crowds. Then the women joined her, combining altos and sopranos in glorious harmony. Then Moses and the men picked up the chant, adding a powerful chorus of tenors and basses.
Together they created a symphony of hope, weaving a sea of song that carried them on their desert journey. These powerful words remind us all to look back, and then to move forward with deliberation, towards new lands, new lives, new freedoms. 
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected]


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