From I to We: the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam

After the Children of Israel left Egypt, Pharaoh has a change of heart and decides to chase them. Seeing the Egyptian chariots approaching, the Children of Israel shout: Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?  Salvation comes through manifest miracle: the Sea of Reeds is parted, and the Children of Israel go into the midst of the sea and walk on dry land. After their safe passage, the sea swallows Pharaoh’s chariots and host, while they give chase, and the Egyptian army drowns. In light of their miraculous rescue, the Children of Israel sing the Song of the Sea.

The Song of the Sea is twofold: the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam. Both songs are songs of glory and praise, but each represents a different type of spiritual leadership.

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.

Moses’ Song is long and complicated, articulated in poetic and metaphoric language. Moses sings his song for the glory of God: I will sing unto the LORD. This is the I-song of the individual prophet-leader, a song that emphasizes the uniqueness and the greatness of the miracle.

Moses the prophet-leader is unique among the prophets, for “with him do I speak mouth to mouth.” Unlike any other prophet, Moses’ communication with God is direct and needs no filters. Consequently, Moses leads the Song of the Sea, and the Children of Israel follow suite, but the song is not the song of the people. It is not a we-song, but an I-song: A ritualistic, poetic song, articulated in elaborate language; A song that does not convey the immediate experience of the Children of Israel, their feeling of awe and wonder when they witnessed and lived through a manifest miracle.

Miriam’s song is brief and simple:

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD, for He is highly exalted: the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.

Miriam begins with action: she takes a timbrel in her hand. When one has a direct experience of miracle, one is in awe. Miriam responds to this all too human awe by playing her timbrel, and through music she invites the men and the women to express their joy and relief through non-verbal, yet powerful and meaningful means: in the act of playing and listening to music.

After having melted the awe and allowed joy to enter, Miriam invites her brothers and sisters to join voices and sing with her: And Miriam sang unto them: Sing ye to the LORD. Miriam’s song is a we-song, a singing that invites everyone, young and old, male and female, to praise the Lord, to sing out loud, to rejoice over their salvation.

The Zohar suggests that Miriam’s pleasant voice invited not only her brothers and sisters, but also the righteous souls in heaven, and the angels to join their voices in praise. A we-song that joins earth bound humans with other worldly beings, a song that is an open invitation to join a communal expression of gratitude and joy.

Feature Photo: The Song of Miriam, Paulo Malteis.

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