Miriam's Song



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ESSAY: Miriam’s Song
The womanly note in the song of history

INSIGHTS: Fruit For Thought
Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates in the agriculture of the soul

Miriam’s Song

Miriam the prophetess ... took the tambourine in her hand; and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances.

And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d....”

Exodus 15:20-21

We don’t sing when we are frightened, despairing, sleepy, or after a heavy meal. We sing when we are pining after one we love, when we are yearning for better times, when we are celebrating an achievement or anticipating a revelation.

We don’t sing when we are complacent. We sing when we are striving for something, or when we have tasted joy and are climbing it to the heavens.

Song is prayer,[1] the endeavor to rise above the petty cares of life and cleave to one’s source. Song is our quest for redemption.

The Midrash[2] enumerates ten preeminent songs in the history of Israel—ten occasions on which our experience of redemption found expression in melody and verse. The first nine are: the song sung on the night of the Exodus in Egypt,[3] the “Song at the Sea,”[4] the “Song at the Well,”[5] Moses’ song upon his completion of writing the Torah,[6] the song with which Joshua stopped the sun,[7] Deborah’s song,[8] King David’s song,[9] the song at the dedication of the Holy Temple,[10] and King Solomon’s “Song of Songs” extolling the love between the Divine Groom and His bride Israel.

The tenth song, says the Midrash, will be the shir chadash, the “new song” of the ultimate redemption: a redemption that is global and absolute; a redemption that will annihilate all suffering, ignorance, jealousy and hate from the face of the earth; a redemption of such proportions that the yearning it evokes, and the joy it brings, require a new song—a completely new musical vocabulary—to capture the voice of Creation’s ultimate striving.

Encore

The most well known of the ten songs of redemption is Shirat HaYam, the “Song at the Sea” sung by Moses and the children of Israel upon their crossing of the Red Sea. We recite this song every day in our morning prayers, and publicly read it in the synagogue twice a year: on the seventh day of Passover (the anniversary of the splitting of the sea and the song’s composition), and on a mid-winter Shabbat in the course of the annual Torah-reading cycle—a Shabbat which is therefore distinguished with the name Shabbat Shirah, “Shabbat of Song.”

The Song at the Sea praises G-d for His miraculous redemption of Israel when He split the Red Sea for them and drowned the pursuing Egyptians in it, and expresses Israel’s desire that G-d lead them to their homeland and rest His presence amongst them in the Holy Temple. It concludes with a reference to the ultimate redemption, when “G-d will reign for all eternity.”[11]

Actually, there are two versions of the Song at the Sea—a male version and a female version. After Moses and the children of Israel sang their song, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the tambourine in her hand; and all the women followed her with tambourines and dances. And Miriam called to them: ‘Sing to G-d, for He is most exalted; horse and rider He cast in the sea...’”[12]

The men sang, and then the women. The men sang, and then the women sang, danced and tambourined. The men sang—sang their joy over their deliverance, sang their yearning for a more perfect redemption—but something was lacking. Something that only a woman’s song could complete.

Feeling and Faith

Miriam, the elder sister of Moses and Aaron, presided over the female encore to the Song at the Sea.

Miriam, named “Bitterness” because at the time of her birth the people of Israel entered the harshest phase of the Egyptian exile.[13] Miriam, who when the infant Moses was placed in a basket at the banks of the Nile, “stood watch from afar, to see what would become of him.”[14]

It was Miriam, with her deep well of feminine feeling, who truly experienced the bitterness of galut (exile and persecution). And it was Miriam, with her woman’s capacity for endurance, perseverance and hope, who stood lonely watch over the tender, fledging life in a basket at the edge of a mammoth river, whose vigilance over “what would become of him” and his mission to bring redemption to her people never faltered.

The scene of the young woman standing watch in the thicket of rushes at the edge of the Nile, the hope of redemption persevering against the bitterness of galut in her heart, evokes the image of another watching matriarch—Rachel. As the prophet Jeremiah describes, it is Rachel who, in her lonely grave on the road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, weeps over her children’s suffering in galut. It is she, more than the male patriarchs or leaders of Israel, who feels the depth of our pain; it is her intervention before G-d, after theirs has failed, which brings the redemption.[15]

Miriam and her chorus brought to the Song at the Sea the intensity of feeling and depth of faith  unique to womankind. Their experience of the bitterness of galut had been far more intense than that of their menfolk, yet their faith had been stronger and more enduring. So their yearning for redemption had been that much more poignant, as was their joy over its realization and their striving towards its greater fulfillment.

Today

The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Yizchak Luria (“The Ari,” 1534-1572), writes that the last generation before the coming of Moshiach is the reincarnation of the generation of the Exodus.

Today, as we stand at the threshold of the ultimate redemption, it is once again the woman whose song is the most poignant, whose tambourine is the most hopeful, whose dance is the most joyous. Today, as then, the redemption will be realized “in the merit of righteous women.”[16] Today, as then, the woman’s yearning for Moshiach—a yearning which runs deeper than that of the man, and inspires and uplifts it—forms the dominant strain in the melody of redemption.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Shirah 5752 (January 18, 1992)[17]


Fruit For Thought

Our sages tell us that, originally, all trees were fruit-bearing, and that this will also be the case in the Era of Moshiach.[18] A fruitless tree is a symptom of an imperfect world, for the ultimate function of a tree is to produce fruit.

If “Man is a tree of the field”[19] and fruit is the tree’s highest achievement, there are seven fruits that crown the human and botanical harvest. These are the seven fruits and grains singled out by the Torah as exemplars of the Holy Land’s fertility: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.[20]

The fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat is the day designated by the Jewish calendar as the “New Year for Trees.” On this day, we celebrate the trees of G-d’s world, and the tree within us, by partaking of these seven “fruits,” which typify the various components and modes of human life.

Food and Fodder

The Kabbalistic masters tell us that each and every one of us has not one, but two souls: an “animal soul,” which embodies our natural, self-oriented instincts; and a “G-dly soul” embodying our transcendent drives, our desire to escape the “I” and relate to that which is greater than ourselves.[21]

As its name implies, the animal soul constitutes that part of ourselves that is common to all living creatures: the instinct for self-preservation and self-perpetuation. But man is more than a sophisticated animal. There are qualities that are unique to us as human beings—the qualities deriving from our “G-dly soul.” The point at which we graduate beyond the self and its needs (“How do I survive?” “How do I obtain food, shelter, money, power, knowledge, satisfaction?”) to a supra-self perspective (“Why am I here?” “What purpose do I serve?”) is the point at which we cease to be just another animal in G-d’s world and begin to realize our uniqueness as human beings.

This is not to say that the animal self is to be rejected in favor of the divine-human self. These are our two souls, both of which are indispensable to a life of fulfillment and purpose. Even as we stimulate the divine in us to rise above the merely animal, we must also develop and refine our animal selves, learning to cultivate the constructive elements of selfhood (e.g., self-confidence, courage, perseverance) while weeding out the selfish and the profane.

“Wheat,” a staple of the human diet,[22] represents the endeavor to nourish what is distinctly human in us, to feed the divine aspirations that are the essence of our humanity. Barley, a typical animal food,[23] represents the endeavor to nourish and develop our animal soul—a task no less crucial to our mission in life than the cultivation of our G-dly soul.[24]

Excitement

Wheat and barley, the two grains among the “seven fruits,” represent the essentials of our inner make-up. Following these come five fruits—“appetizers” and “desserts” on our spiritual menu—that add flavor and zest to our basic endeavor of developing our animal and G-dly souls.

The first of these is the grape, whose defining characteristic is joy. As the grapevine describes its product in Yotam’s Parable, “...my wine, which makes joyous G-d and men.”[25]

Joy is revelation. A person ignited by joy has the same basic traits he possesses in a non-joyous state—the same knowledge and intelligence, the same loves, hates, wants and desires. But in a state of joy, everything is more pronounced: the mind keener, the loves deeper, the hates more vivid, the desires more aggressive. Emotions that ordinarily show only a faint intimation of their true extent now come out into the open. In the words of the Talmud, “When wine enters, the concealed emerges.”[26]

A joyless life might be complete in every way, yet it is a shallow life: everything is there, but only the barest surface is showing. Both the G-dly and the animal souls contain vast reservoirs of insight and feeling that never see the light of day because there is nothing to stimulate them. “Grape” represents the element of joy in our lives—the joy that unleashes these potentials and adds depth, color and intensity to everything we do.

Involvement

We might be doing something fully and completely; we might even be doing it joyously. But are we there? Are we involved?

Involvement means more than doing something right, more than giving it our all. It means that we care, that we are invested in the task. It means that we are affected by what we are doing, for the better or for the worse.

The fig, the fourth of the “seven fruits,” is also the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”—the fruit of which Adam and Eve tasted, thereby committing the first sin of history.[27] As Chassidic teaching explains, “knowledge” (daat) implies an intimate involvement with the thing known (as in the verse, “And Adam knew his wife”[28]). Adam’s sin derived from his refusal to reconcile himself with the notion that there are certain things from which he must distance himself: he desired to intimately know every corner of G-d’s world, to become involved with every one of G-d’s creations. Even evil, even that which G-d had declared out of bounds to him.[29]

Adam’s fig was one of the most destructive forces in history. In its equally powerful constructive guise, the fig represents our capacity for a deep and intimate involvement in our every positive endeavor—an involvement which signifies that we are one with what we are doing.

Deed

“Your lips are like a thread of scarlet,” sings King Solomon in Song of Songs, his celebration of the love between the Divine Groom and His bride Israel, “your mouth is comely; your temple is like a piece of pomegranate within your locks.”[30] As interpreted by the Talmud, the allegory of the pomegranate expresses the truth that, “Even the empty ones amongst you are full of good deeds as a pomegranate [is full of seeds].”[31]

The pomegranate is not just a model for something that contains many particulars. It also addresses the paradox of how an individual may be “empty” and, at the same time, be “full of good deeds as a pomegranate.”

The pomegranate is a highly compartmentalized fruit: each of its hundreds of seeds is wrapped in its own sac of flesh and is separated from its fellows by a tough membrane. In the same way, it is possible for a person to do good deeds—many good deeds—yet they remain isolated acts, with little or no effect on his nature and character. He may possess many virtues, but they do not become him; he may be full of good deeds, yet he remains morally and spiritually hollow.

If the fig represents our capacity for total involvement and identification with what we are doing, the pomegranate is its very antithesis, representing our capacity to overreach ourselves and act in a way that surpasses our internal spiritual state. It is our capacity to do and achieve things that are utterly incompatible with who and what we are at the present moment.

The pomegranate is “hypocrisy” in its noblest form: the refusal to reconcile oneself to one’s spiritual and moral station as defined by the present state of one’s character; the insistence on acting better and more G-dly than we are.

Struggle

For most of us, “life” is synonymous with “struggle.” We struggle to forge an identity under the heavy shadow of parental and peer influence; we struggle to find a partner in life, and then we struggle to preserve our marriage; we struggle to raise our children, and then struggle in our relationship with them as adults; we struggle to earn a living, and then struggle with our guilt over our good fortune; and underlying it all is the perpetual struggle between our animal and G-dly selves, between our self-oriented instincts and our aspiration to transcend the self and touch the divine.

The “olive” in us is the part of ourselves that thrives on struggle, that revels in it, that would no more escape it than escape life itself. “Just like an olive,” say our sages, “which yields its oil only when pressed,” so, too, do we yield what is best in us only when pressed between the millstones of life and the counterforces of a divided self.[32]

Perfection

As the “fig” is countered by the “pomegranate,” so, too, is the “olive” in us contrasted by our seventh fruit, the “date,” which represents our capacity for peace, tranquillity and perfection. While it is true that we’re best when we’re pressed, it is equally true that there are sublime potentials in our souls that well forth only when we are completely at peace with ourselves—only when we have achieved a balance and harmony among the diverse components of our souls.

Thus the Psalmist sings: “The tzaddik (perfectly righteous person) shall bloom as the date palm.”[33] The Zohar explains that there is a certain species of date palm that bears fruit only after seventy years.[34] The human character is comprised of seven basic attributes, each consisting of ten sub-categories; thus, the tzaddik’s blooming “after seventy years” is the fruit of absolute tranquillity, the product of a soul whose every aspect and nuance of character has been refined and brought into harmony with oneself, one’s fellow and one’s G-d.

While the “olive” and “date” describe two very different spiritual personalities, they both exist within every man. For even in the midst of our most ardent struggles, we can always find comfort and fortitude in the tranquil perfection that resides at the core of our souls. And even in our most tranquil moments, we can always find the challenge that will provoke us to yet greater achievement.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on the Fifteenth of Shevat, 5750 (1990) and 5752 (1992), and on other occasions[35]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Throughout the Torah, song is used as a synonym of prayer (e.g., Jeremiah 7:16 and 11:14, II Chronicles 6:19 and 20:22, Psalms 17:1 and 61:2). The offering of the korbanot in the Holy Temple—the forerunner of our daily prayers—was accompanied by the vocal and instrumental music of the Levites.

   Aside from the traditional intonations of the reader who leads the prayer service, Jews have always recited their prayers in a full, melodious voice. This is especially the custom amongst chassidim; indeed, many great Chassidic melodies are, in fact, spontaneous “compositions” which emerged from the prayers of chassidim. These yearning tunes welled from hearts striving to connect to their essence and source, intertwining with the words of supplication issuing from their mouths.

[2]. Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 10.

[3]. Isaiah 30:29.

[4]. Exodus 15:1-21.

[5]. Numbers 21:17-20.

[6]. Deuteronomy 31-32.

[7]. Joshua 10:12-13.

[8]. Judges 5.

[9]. II Samuel 22.

[10]. Psalms 30.

[11]. Exodus 15:18.

[12]. Ibid., v. 20-21.

[13]. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 26:1; ibid., Shir HaShirim 2:11.

[14]. Exodus 2:4.

[15]. Jeremiah 31:14-15; Pesikta Rabbati 3.

[16].  Talmud, Sotah 11b; Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth 606.

[17]. Sefer HaSichot 5752, vol. I, pp. 303-307.

[18]. Nachmanides on Genesis 1:11.

[19]. Deuteronomy 20:19.

[20]. Ibid., 8:8.

[21]. Tanya, ch. 1 ff.

[22]. “And bread satiates the heart of man”—Psalms 104:15.

[23]. “The barley and the straw for the horses and the mules”—I Kings 5:8. See also Talmud, Sotah 14a.

[24]. Indeed, according to Torah law, one is obligated to first feed his animals before one feeds oneself (Talmud, Berachot 40a; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Servitude 9:8).

[25]. Judges 9:13.

[26]. Talmud, Eruvin 65a.

[27]. Genesis 3:7; Rashi, ibid.

[28]. Genesis 4:1.

[29]. See The Price of Knowledge, WIR, vol. VIII, no. 5.

[30]. Song of Songs 4:3.

[31]. Talmud, Berachot 57a. (Raka, the Hebrew word used by the verse for “temple” is related to the word reik, “empty.” Thus “your temple is like a... pomegranate” is homiletically rendered “the empty ones amongst you are like a pomegranate.”)

[32]. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 36:1.

[33]. Psalms 92:13.

[34]. Zohar, part III, 16a.

[35]. Sefer HaSichot 5750, vol. I, pp. 273-282; Sefer HaSichot 5752, vol I, pp. 325-328; et al.


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