And the women dancing with their timbrels
followed Miriam as she sang her song
sing the song to the One we’ve exalted
Miriam and the women dance, and danced the whole night long
-Miriam’s Song, Debbie Friedman
This is a great portion to talk about the women. Sure, I could talk about the Israelites leaving Egypt, coming to the sea, kvetching, (and kvetching,) Moses parting the sea, the Israelites being saved and the Egyptian chariots succumbing to the water. We’ll be telling that story soon enough in great detail at our seders in two months. And the Shirat Hayam, the Song at the Sea, which we read this week, is said every morning in our service. And we hear the MiChamocha piece twice a day in our services. But right after that, the text gives us the song of Miriam. It maybe a shorter than her brother’s song, or maybe only a few lines survived in transit through the years. But it seems appropriate for Miriam to get her due. After all, it is because of Miriam that Moses is even alive.
As you’ll recall, all of the Israelite boys were to be put to death. But Moses, instead of being drowned in the Nile, was floated down the river in a basket, just when the Pharaoh’s daughter bathed there daily. As Everett Fox explains in his translation The Five Books of Moses, our deliverance begins with a little girl putting her brother in a basket in the Nile. And it is completed with this same girl, now a woman, dancing at the sea. And I will add,this happens just as she has seen her brother walk, not float, through the water.
In addition to Miriam, our Haftarah tells the story of Deborah, from the book of Judges, another section of our bible, with text that is told in song. Like Miriam, Deborah is a prophetess. After being oppressed by Jabin, the king of Cannan, for 20 years, Deborah prevailed upon Barak, the general, not the president, to face the Assyrian General Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army. Deborah prophesied that Barak would be victorious, and he was. Sisera fled the battle, seeking refuge in the tent of a woman, Yael. Yael calmed him and gave him some kind of dairy product…milk? And like warm milk at night, he fell asleep. As Sisera rested, Yael killed him.
Miriam, Deborah, Yael. Yes, the women rule the day in today’s readings. But, as I write this, I am also thinking of two other Deborahs today.
Forever etched in my mind is Hazzan Deborah Togut’s reading the Shirat Hayam and the Haftarah that bears her name at her senior cantorial shabbat at JTS in 1998. I had been in NYC on a short break during my Israel study year and I was thrilled to be able to spend this Shabbat up at JTS. Her stunning reading was evidence of her exceptional skill as a Torah and Haftarah reader and teacher. She was a traditionalist, committed to halacha (Jewish law), nusach (traditional davening), and proper Torah reading. Deborah died obscenely young at the age of 46 of a brain tumor in April of 2010, leaving behind a husband and two small children and many students.
Just one year ago this week, we lost another Deborah, Debbie Friedman, at the age of 59. The impact of Debbie’s music and teaching has been felt throughout the world. I remember being a teen in NFTY and singing: Im Tirzu Ain Zo Aggadah and thinking that this tune had been around forever, as if it was Mi Sinai (so old that it was as if it was created at Sinai). Little did I know that this melody, to the words of Herzl, was written by someone just a few years older than I. And little did I know the Debbie Friedman who I heard in a packed house at Carnegie hall in a raging snowstorm, was the same Debbie that I would get to know as a friend just a few years later. Debbie started writing young and she kept writing innovative music to bring Jews closer to God, and to one another. This Debbie was not a traditionalist. She wrote melodies in Hebrew, in English, in both, without regard for traditional modes. However, she was a stickler for proper Hebrew and even began studying nusach herself, while teaching in the Hebrew Union College cantorial school which now bears her name.
From Cantor Jeff Klepper’s blog:
Like Miriam, whose spirit is felt so keenly in (this) week’s Torah Portion (Shabbat Shirah), Debbie Friedman brought the Jewish people together with song and dance. As Rabbi Dan Freelander has observed: “Debbie Friedman died the week of B’shalach, which contains the first Torah verses of a woman as explicit leader, musician and prophetess. Debbie was the inheritor of Miriam’s timbrel, but her timbrel was a guitar. Her voice led us out of a barren enslavement, and her spirit is eternal.”
Deborah Togut and Debbie Friedman. Totally different commitments to practicing Judaism. Equal, unfailing commitment to the Jewish people. I picture these two hazzans sitting under a fig tree in olam habbah, arguing about nusach and making beautiful music together. Maybe Miriam Ha-Neviah and Deborah Ha-Neviah will join in.
Arise, Arise Devorah
Arise, Arise and hear our song
Arise, Arise Devorah
Uru uri, dab ri shir
–Devorah’s Song, Debbie Friedman