Songs of Women, Water and War
BY RABBANIT SHANI TARAGIN
Adar is a time for music, a source of joy and inspiration throughout our history. Rav Nachman explains that we do not recite Hallel on Purim because the entire Megillah is a song of praise! (Arachin 10b)
The Rabbis explain that the song of the downfall of Haman’s ten sons is written in a “half-brick on a half-brick structure… so that they should never rise from their downfall.” (Megillah 16b) Just as a wall built in this manner will not stand, so too, these individuals should have no resurgence. By contrast, the other songs in Tanach are written as “a half-brick arranged upon a whole brick and a whole brick arranged upon a half-brick,” in which each line of the song is divided into a stitch of text, referred to as a half-brick, which is separated by a blank space, referred to as a whole brick. These songs include the Song of the Sea (Shemot 15) and the Song of Devorah (Shoftim 5), both of which are national military victory songs, but also songs of water and songs of women.
These songs of praise came after extended periods of subjugation and harsh oppression, when the suffering was almost unbearable. Shifting from depression to miraculous victory, the oppressed broke forth in song. Both songs contain similar details – victory over an enemy, the flooding of water, the destruction of chariots – as well as a similar rhythm, scope and breadth of vision, combining past, present and future. Both songs are sung in unison by the leaders of the time – Moshe and Miriam, Devorah and Barak – highlighting their different styles of leadership.
Watching her brother from afar by the banks of the Nile, Miriam anticipated salvation in the face of despair. When men separated from their wives due to Pharaoh’s harsh decrees, Miriam advised her father Amram to remarry and continue to bear children (Sotah 12a). Miriam is called “Aharon’s sister” to teach us that before Moshe was born she prophetically foretold the birth of the future savior of Am Yisrael! Though her father despaired when Moshe was cast into the Nile, Miriam was determined to see the fulfillment of her prophecy (ibid. 12b–13a). The Rabbis derive these lessons from the narrative which highlights the active responses of women such as Shifrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, and Bat-Pharaoh to infanticide and oppression, in contrast to the relative passivity of the men of the generation.
Miriam’s optimism and leadership are manifest once again at the Song of the Sea. Though Moshe initiated the singing, Miriam’s song is of a different nature. “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, picked up a hand-drum, and all the women went out after her in dance with hand-drums. And Miriam responded to them: Sing to Hashem for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver He has hurled to the sea!” Miriam did not lead the people in song by singing herself; she raised her drum and encouraged the women to dance on their own. Miriam motivated the nation to rise from their stupor and sing, transforming them from a reactive people to a proactive one!
Devorah the prophetess initiated her song in a similar manner, reinforcing the message of unique female leadership. Like Miriam, she lived under the oppression of a chariot-based army and called upon the men to respond with a military attack. Barak, the military general, was afraid to wage war against the Canaanite menace alone, and so Devorah joined him atop Mount Tavor. She tells Barak that “there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for Hashem will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (i.e. Yael)
Devorah’s victory song recounting the miraculous flooding of the Kishon river resonates with allusions to the Red Sea and Mount Sinai, reminding us of the miracles and melodies of Am Yisrael in the wilderness. Like Miriam, she composed her song to inspire the nation to follow the lead of “women of the tent” such as Yael – not necessarily with military might but with the spirit of courage and belief in Hashem! Whereas Miriam is introduced as a “sister of Aharon” in her song, Devorah calls herself “Mother of Israel,” highlighting the development of leadership by righteous women in every generation.
Each generation offers poetic commentary through song, depicting its shortcomings while celebrating the triumph of commitment. The songs of women and water, of sisters, mothers and queens, remind us of the active roles women must play in catalyzing redemption, “to tell the righteous acts of Hashem”!
Rabbanit Shani Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and the Director of the Mizrachi–TVA Lapidot Educators’ Program.