Commentary for Beshalach

10 Feb

Exodus 15:20-21 reads “And Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. And Miriam spoke up to them: “Sing to the Lord for He is exalted above all; horse and rider He has hurled into the sea.” These verses are the subject of many questions, ranging form the analytical (where did they get the drums?) to the philosophical (what purpose does it serve for Miriam and the women to repeat the song that Moses and all of the Israelites had just sung?), but in all of this questioning, an important milestone is often overlooked: Despite having been in the story of Exodus since almost the beginning, this is the first time that Miriam is named.

 

Outside of genealogies, Biblical figures are usually only named if they are going to play some sort of important role, be it a role within the story or a role in service to the community. Miriam, however, plays a role in the story when she is introduced way back in Ex. 2:4, following Moses’ basket until it is spotted by Pharaoh’s daughter and then suggesting that her mother be chosen as a wet-nurse. Why, then, is Miriam only given a name now?

 

The answer is found in the other strikingly odd part of Miriam’s naming in this verse. While she is introduced in Ex. 2:4 as Moses’ sister, several chapters before Aaron is ever mentioned, she is instead identified in 15:20 as “the sister of Aaron” and from this we are left to infer that she is therefore also Moses’ sister who was mentioned back in chapter two.

 

When he is anointed as the High Priest in chapter twenty-nine of Exodus, Moses is instructed to anoint Aaron by placing the sacrificial blood on his ear, his thumb, and his big toe. A midrash explains the symbolic nature of these parts of the body as follows: the toe symbolizes that the High Priest must go out and walk among the people, the ear symbolizes that he must listen to them, and the thumb symbolizes that he must act on their behalf. In other words, Aaron’s job is not just to perform the sacrifices that are asked of him, but to also reach out to the people and help to lift them up spiritually as well.

 

While the song that Miriam sings with the women is the same as the first line of the song that Moses had just sung with the entire people, the phrases used to introduce them are very different. While Moses is depicted as singing with the people, Miriam is depicted as leading the women by singing to them. Moses sings with the people when they are all at a spiritual high together after having witnessed God’s awesome might saving them from the Egyptians, Miriam waits until that high has died down and then attempts to bring the women back up to that level. Miriam is named here, as Aaron’s sister, rather than back in 2:4 as Moses’ because it is only now that she has found her true role. Her job is not to teach like Moses’ is, but rather, like Aaron, her job is to serve the people by helping to bring them up higher and establish a greater spiritual connection with God.

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