Our Sages tell us, “In the merit of the righteous women of the generation, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah, 11b).
Many of us have heard this Gemara, but what is less well-known is the spiritual level these women were able to acheive. Their connection to Hashem- as individuals and as a community- under the intense persecution and servitude of the Egyptian exile is something from which we can all draw inspiration.
A while back I came across a beautiful dvar Torah, by Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff (the full text can be found here) that poignantly depicts just how high these women were able to go in a spiritual sense. It was a real eye-opener to me when I read it. I’ll summarize the main points below and add a bit of my own commentary.
After Klal Yisroel witnessed the awe inspiring splitting of the sea, the subsequent annihilation of the Egyptians, and the intense revelation of HaShem’s Hand, Moshe Rabbeinu led the men in singing, “Az Yashir.”
When the men had finished, Miriam HaNevia then led the women in their own song of praise:
וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף–בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ
כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת
וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם:שִׁירוּ לַיהוָה כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם
And Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Aharon, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and dances. And Miriam sang (answered) to them. Sing to Hashem who was victorious in battle; horse and rider, He threw into the sea. (Shemos 15:20-21).
The Chasam Sofer points out a few questions regarding this incident. First off, why was Miriam’s song only focused on the destruction of Egypt without mentioning the awesome redemption the Jewish people had just witnessed?
Secondly, “Vata’an lahem Miriam” can also mean, “she answered them” in the masculine form. Who was she answering, and what was the question?
According to the Chasam Sofer, citing the Midrash Tanchuma (parashas Beshalach, section 13), after the splitting of the sea, the angels wanted to also sing praises to HaShem. But, they could not start singing until Moshe and the men had finished. After all, the miraculous events were for the Jewish people.
Yet when the time came for the women to sing, the angels complained about having to wait for their song as well. Miriam was actually responding to the angels. But how did her song constitute a response?
The Chasam Sofer goes on to explain that we tend define miracles as supernatural events- occurrences that lie outside of the natural order of things. But when HaShem created nature, He built into it a natural subservience to the Torah and to all who keep it.
What this means is that to the extent a person is living a life of Torah, and to the extent that this person is righteous, the greater is nature’s obligation to do his bidding. What we call miracles for tzadkkim are thus not really miracles at all. These occurrences are simply the natural order of the world. So, if the Baal Shem Tov wanted an icicle to burn like a candle, it did.
On the other hand, when a person’s merit is small, but nature nevertheless bends to him, then the resulting miracle is truly great.
Since the miracle of the splitting of the sea happened predominantly through the great merit of the women, nature was obligated to protect them. For them, it wasn’t such a miracle; rather, it was the natural outcome of their righteousness. Thus the Gemara states that, “Even they [ie the women] were involved in the miracle [of the redemption from Egypt].” They are also obligated to drink the four cups of wine on Sedar Night.
The men, however, didn’t have as much merit as the women. Thus the redemption and the splitting of the sea represented a tremendous miracle on their behalf.
The Chasam Sofer goes on to say that since the fact that the sea split for the women is considered as something natural, there was no need for them to sing shirah. For the men, however, since they weren’t as worthy as the women, they needed a tremendous miracle to be saved. In gratitude for their miraculous redemption, they sang praises to HaShem.
The angels agreed that the men, should precede them in singing shirah, because the splitting of the sea was big miracle for them. But when it came to the women, since they had earned the redemption due to their merits, the angels felt that there was no reason for them to wait for the women to sing.
To this claim Miriam answered:
Our shirah is not mainly for the redemption. Our shirah is for having seen the Egyptian horses and riders thrown into the sea. True, we deserved the redemption on our own merit, and thus the splitting of the sea on our behalf wasn’t so miraculous. However, in order for us to survive, it was not necessary for us to witness our enemies’ destruction. To behold that sight was no longer within the realm of the ‘natural.’ It is for this miracle that our shirah as well should precede that of the angels.
The angels had no choice but to agree.