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Toward Shabbat: Beshalah

This week, in Parashat Beshalah, after the Israelites cross the Red Sea from slavery into freedom, we read of a famous moment. It’s one that has been memorialized and celebrated in various artistic media—from Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song” to Mark Chagall’s “Miriam Dances,” to the fabric piece below by Mary Therese Streck. I loved reading about this moment as a child in the story of Passover, a visage of women’s joy and leadership in our Torah.

:וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת־הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ וַתֵּצֶאןָ כׇל־הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.” (Exodus 15:20)

Miriam is given a rare title here—“prophetess.” This prompts the question: What exactly is Miriam’s prophecy?

Rashi gives one kind of answer in the comment on this verse, taken from the midrash “Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael”: “The righteous women in that generation were confident that God would perform miracles for them and they accordingly had brought timbrels with them from Egypt.”

Perhaps Miriam’s prophecy is evident in this simple action. For in choosing to carry a musical instrument with her across the sea, she expressed a profound faith that the Israelities would make it to the other side (as did all of the women!)—otherwise, what do they need timbrels for? Before they even left slavery, Miriam envisioned a world in which a timbrel would be necessary.

This reading of Miriam’s prophecy cast the concept of “prophecy” itself into a new light for me. What Rashi points out here is not only Miriam’s faith, but also the specificity of her vision: She must have imagined that moment of dancing before the Israelites left Egypt. She took action as if their freedom was already real. This take on Miriam’s dance caused me to think about what I would be doing if I were living as if all of the deepest wishes of my heart had already been realized. What metaphorical instrument might I bring with me across the chasm of uncertainty into the future?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that a prophecy is “a form of living, a crossing point of God and [humanity]” (The Prophets). This is why Miriam is called a prophetess. In crossing the Red Sea, she also became a crossing point for God and humanity herself. She was the bearer of the promise of joy even in a moment of terrifying uncertainty.

Let us take an example from Miriam this week to envision our future—with specificity and with faith. When it feels like the water may be closing in on us, let us envision a future of celebration and bring with us the tools to make it happen.