In Parshat Beshalach we read that Miriam, the prophetess, led the women in song and dance after the defeat of the Egyptian army. They had all prepared timbrels and drums to accompany their song. In a parallel story from the haftarah we read that Devorah, the prophetess, was a “fiery woman” who also commanded General Barak in battle and sang afterward when he defeated the enemy (Shoftim 4:4-5:31). What was so special about these women? How was their celebration so different from the men that it merited a special mention in the Torah?
Miriam was one of many women who acted “behind the scenes” to help make Moshe the great man he was. Miriam encouraged the Jewish people and especially her own parents to keep having children in the face of a potential existential calamity. Pharaoh threatened to kill all the male babies. For a while, it seemed as if this would be the end of the nation, the holocaust of their time. There was plenty of gloom and doom everywhere. Miriam, however, was able to inspire hope and faith, allowing the Jewish nation to survive and thrive.
Similarly, Devorah summoned General Barak and encouraged him to wage war and defeat the enemy, Sisera, the commander of Yavin’s army. General Barak seemed to be timid and afraid. He told Devorah, “I will only go if you go with me. Otherwise, I will not go.” She figuratively had to hold his hand. She had more faith in God than he did. In the end, each and every enemy soldier fell by the sword; not one survived.
The men of Israel showed a lack of faith several times in the parsha. When they were at the shore facing Pharaoh’s army they were frightened and cried out, “Was there a shortage of graves in Egypt that you took us out here to die?” (14:11) Similarly, they showed a lack of faith in Hashem when they complained there was no water, that the water they had was bitter, that there was no meat, when they tried to hoard the manna and when they complained about its taste. The Torah tells us that “they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter.” (15:23) The Baal Shem Tov explains that it was not the water that was bitter. Instead, his interpretation was that the people who drank it were bitter. They were full of complaints and figuratively expected their bread to always land buttered-side down.
When the Torah described the men who sang along with Moshe, we are told they only “had faith in Hashem and Moshe his servant” (14:31) when they saw the Egyptian warriors drowned on the seashore. “Az Yashir,” it was only after the fact that the men began to sing praise. Miriam and her women followers, on the other hand, being women of faith, came prepared with timbrels and drums. The Mechilta relates that the women had more faith than the men. They came prepared to sing, bringing along their musical instruments in advance. The Shemot Rabbah (23:5) tells us that singing God’s praise in the midst of a crisis is more praiseworthy than waiting until after the fact to see how it all turned out.
The parsha ends by admonishing us to always fight the forces of Amalek. Rebbetzin Yemima Mizrachi reminds us that the gematria, the numerical value, of Amalek is equal to the word “mar,” being bitter. If we see the parables throughout the parsha we come to realize we are also being taught a valuable lesson in life. There are many occasions where we may be tempted to feel embittered and upset. It is not easy to have faith at such moments. Even Moshe’s hands grew heavy and weak. He needed help to overcome the bitterness that Amalek represents. Still, we have to remember the heroines of the Torah so that we can follow their examples. Let us follow the examples of Miriam and Devorah who showed faith in the midst of crisis and were found to be righteous. We need to sing God’s praises even during difficult times and not wait until after the fact to see if He will come through for us.
In the merit of the various righteous women who helped Moshe and helped the Jewish people survive the challenges throughout the generations, may Hashem bless us so that we be spared these tests of faith as much as possible. The Sfat Emet (Beshalach 5653) tells us that we can either connect with Hashem through crying in troubled times or through songs of praise. Let us choose songs of gratitude and joy, whenever possible.
By Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic clinical psychologist and an avid motorcyclist. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He can be contacted at [email protected].