Avi S. Olitzky

The women sang too

Every weekend, our Shabbat is filled with joyous singing and prayer, but this Shabbat explicitly we focus on song. The Israelites flee Egypt and miraculously cross the Sea of Reeds (often mistakenly translated as the Red Sea). And once across, they sing, and they dance. We name this spontaneous rejoicing Shirat HaYam — the Song of the Sea.

Exodus 15:1-18 details not only the rejoicing of the Israelites, but also frames the song as a call-and-response chant between Moses and the people. Each morning we sing this same poem during daily worship as if we are fleeing our own personal Egypt — every single day.

This song has even further liturgical significance. This poem comprises the first hymn of the Christian Eastern Orthodox canon. And in the Roman Catholic Church (as well as the Eastern Orthodox and Methodist traditions) the Song of the Sea is recited during the Easter Vigil when salvation is detailed for the congregation.

This becomes the symbolic exemplar for praise and grace.

The challenge with this interfaith liturgical history is that our ancestors’ singing does not end with verse 18. There is a bridge verse: “For the horse of Pharaoh went in with his chariots and with his horsemen into the sea, and God brought again the waters of the sea upon them; but the people of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea.”

Miriam then gathers the women and they sing and dance, too: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.  And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea.’”

Why don’t we recount Miriam’s song, too? Why don’t we celebrate the women? Why is it historically only about Moses? Granted, it is but one verse of song, but even 11th century French Torah commentator Rashi tells us: “Moses sang the Song to the men — he sang it and they repeated it after him; and Miriam sang the Song to the women and they repeated if after her.” That is to say that Moses and Miriam sang those same verses that we refer to as just Moses’ song.

Moreover, in the liturgy leading up to the central prayer of Jewish tradition — the Amidah — the reference is to Moses solo as well (Moses and the Children of Israel sang a song to You with great joy). More recent siddurim have updated this to read Moshe u’Miryam — both Moses and Miriam sang.

We refer to this weekend as Shabbat Shirah—two feminine words, and yet we have completely disenfranchised the female element of our narrative.

We should regularly ensure that no one is left out of our songs, our history, our rejoicing. We should work regularly to include and not exclude. It’s high time to take out our timbrels. It’s high time to elevate the voices of the women in our community. It’s high time to reclaim and retell our story with them as part of it— because they were there, too.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. He graduated from the Joint Program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2003 where he was awarded a BA in Sociology and a BA in Talmud and Rabbinics. Rabbi Olitzky went on to receive an MA in Midrash in October 2007 and his ordination as a rabbi from JTS in May 2008.
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