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Which One Are YOU: Miriam or Moses?

by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz (Posted on January 25, 2024)
Topics: Beshalach, Sefer Shemot, Torah

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In this week’s parasha we read about the Jews’ reaction to their miraculous redemption from Egypt. After they safely crossed the Red Sea, they are led in song by their leaders, Moses and Miriam. The songs serve as a spiritual expression of thanksgiving for their good fortune.

The Torah gives us detailed descriptions of the celebrations, telling us exactly how these two communal leaders chose to guide their followers through their first spiritual exercise. Although there is some overlap between these two models of spiritual expression, there are also significant differences between them. They are two siblings whose worlds are refracted through very distinct prisms. Both miraculously crossed the Red Sea, yet, their reactions are vastly different.

First the Torah tells us about Moses’ spiritual reaction to the events. Here are the opening verses:

אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל את השירה הזאת ליהוה ויאמרו לאמר. אשירה ליהוה כי גאה גאה, סוס ורוכבו רמה בים

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song to Hashem, they spoke, saying: I will sing to Hashem, for He is highly exalted; He has thrown the horse and his rider into the sea. (Shemot 15:1-2)

This is the introduction and starting verses of Moses’ poem. The poem then continues for seventeen additional verses, in which Moshe spells out in great detail the specifics of what transpired from when they left Egypt until their enemies were drowned and defeated.

After we read about the celebration of Moses and the community, we are told that Miriam followed suit: she too led the community in song, expressing spiritual gratitude for their redemption. In only two verses the Torah describes their singing as follows:

ותקח מרים הנביאה אחות אהרן את התוף בידה, ותצאן כל הנשים אחריה בתפים ובמחולות. ותען להם מרים: שירו ליהוה כי גאה גאה, סוס ורוכבו רמה בים

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 to Hashem, for He is highly exalted: He threw the horse and his rider into the sea. (Shemot 15:20-21)

On the surface these celebrations seem quite similar. Yet, if one takes a closer look, one notices many differences between the two.

To enumerate:

First, Moses is not given any title; the only thing we are told about him is his name. Miriam on the other hand is described as a נביאה; a prophetess.

Second, Moses is explicit about the recipient of his spiritual enthusiasm, לה׳; to God. Miriam is a bit amorphous; in the introduction she does not explicitly address the poem to God

Third, In Moshe’s poem, he and the community come across as being cerebral; their singing doesn’t involve any physical or emotional expression. Miriam’s thanksgiving is very different. There is a deeply felt psychological component to the experience; the singing is accompanied by dancing and the playing of musical instruments. Their gratitude is felt emotionally and expressed physically.

And finally, Moses’ is verbose, Miriam is concise. Moses’s poem is long, elaborate, contemplative, and very specific. Miriam’s poem is the mirror opposite. Moses’ poem takes nineteen verses in the Torah, Miriam’s has all of nine words.

In other words, Moshe ruminates; Miriam celebrates. Moshe reflects; Miriam reacts. Moshe’s response is cerebral; Miriam’s reaction is embodied. Moshe composes prose; Miriam breaks out in dance.

In essence, Moshe reacts like a philosopher who has come to a profound realization, Miriam responds like a believer who has been overwhelmed by a transcendental experience.

Personally, I prefer Miriam’s poetic celebration over Moshe’s philosophical exposition. Miriam, it seems, better understands the contours of the religious experience.

Spiritual ecstasy should be an emotional experience, originating in our hearts, not a cerebral experience located in our brains. Religiosity is when an insight or experience overwhelms us with a sense of awe and appreciation. The insight and conviction during those moments feels powerful, and absolute, bordering on the prophetic. This is why we are reminded in this story that Miriam was a prophet. Rationality is the tools of the philosopher, not of the prophet. The prophet’s encounter of the Divine is a-rational, transcending logic or reason.

During those times we, like Miriam, are completely overtaken by the moment, allowing our senses to fill us with an enthusiasm and fervor that is expressed physically and emotionally.  Our bodies break out in ecstatic song, negating logic and numbing our intellectual faculties.

In the weeks ahead we will come to appreciate Moses’ intellectual prowess. He transmitted to us an incredibly sophisticated judicial system, one that intrigues our minds, stimulates our brains and challenges our thinking. That will happen eventually. For now though, we need to pause and celebrate the religious genius of Miriam. In the realm of spirituality her approach is far superior to Moshe’s. Because, ultimately, in the age-old mind/body conundrum, at least as far as religiosity is concerned, she got it right: it is the body over the mind; the heart over the brain.