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Posted on February 6, 2020 (5780) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Miriam the prophetess – Aharon’s sister – took her drum in hand, and all the women went forth with her with drums and with dances. Miriam said to them, “Sing to Hashem, for He is exalted…”[2]

Why is it that Moshe includes himself in the invitation to sing Shirah (“I will sing…”[3]), while Miriam punts. Unlike her brother, Miriam urges others to sing, thereby excluding herself.

I think the explanation is as follows. There is no question that song can be a great mitzvah. But the appropriate type of song varies according to circumstance. So does the way different people ought to participate, each according to his ability to praise what needs to be praised, and according to his musical talent.

The women clearly had a leg up on the men. Their song was accompanied by instruments. This means that as the people hurriedly packed a few items to take with them from Egypt, the women took instruments along as well. They were confident that they would need them to praise Hashem and thank Him for what He had done for them, and what miracles He assuredly would continue to perform for them in the future. Carrying these instruments with them meant that they were transforming an art form they knew in Egypt into a way of honoring Hashem. Other things would also be so honored in future, like His Torah, or the Jewish people, or a bride and groom.

Joyful displays sometimes include acrobatics and juggling torches, as the gemara[4] describes regarding the simchas beis ha-shoevah. There are limits. Not every sign of joy gives honor to the occasion. Certainly not the singing of fools, in which everyone opens their mouths and the result resembles the braying of donkeys. Honor is not achieved in the riotous dancing of some, that looks like the confused motion of madmen. It is achieved when it is displays skill and order

Honor is given by those who use their talents carefully. In the case of our pasuk, Miriam took her drum in hand, and encouraged others to dance. She did not, however, lead the singing. Perhaps because of her age, her voice was weak and unsuitable for the job. (Men, on the other hand, continue to make a contribution to vocal music even when they are weakened and their voices lose their power. We see this in the instructions to the Levi’im. Although they cease assisting in the ordinary work once they turn fifty, they continue to play a role in the singing.[5] This can only mean that they contribute their musical knowledge, or their understanding of the deep spiritual message in the beis ha-mikdosh music which they teach to others.)

There seem to be exceptions to this. The gemara[6] lavishes praise on amora’im who cavorted in front of the kallah. Dovid was far less than regal in his dancing in front of the Aron, and was proud of it. The distinction is in the nature of the simcha. Where it is lifnei Hashem, e.g. in the beis ha-mikdosh during the avodah, the music and merriment must orderly and pleasant and of good musical quality. It must retain the gilu be-r’adah,[7] the rejoicing while still trembling in the presence of the Shechinah. Frivolity has no place there.

Displays of joy that honor people are very different. In rejoicing at a wedding, our goal is to endear the bride and groom to each other. Anything that brings joy – including acrobatics and foolishness – is appropriate, so long as tzniyus and some dignity is maintained. Even here there is no room for the disorderly dancing we sometimes see, in which the boys and girls push each other.

The simcha we display with the Torah is different yet. All foolishness and disorder are inappropriate here because they run counter to the nature of the occasion! When we rejoice with the Torah we ought to be giving voice to the inner simcha that comes from properly understanding Hashem’s Torah. When His demands upon us reside within us in equilibrium, the simcha itself is a valuable tool to understand more. When they are improperly comprehended, one mitzvah grates on the next, and the tension between them hardens the heart, rather than opens it to the reality of Hashem.

The difference, then, between Moshe and Miriam in the Shirah is just the beginning of an exploration of utilizing music for different mitzvah purposes. Often, the right music does not flow spontaneously, but is generated by thoughtful application of talent to the moment.

  1. Based on Meshivas Nafesh by R. Yochanan Luria (15th century)
  2. Shemos 15:20-21
  3. Shemos 15:1
  4. Sukkah 52b
  5. Rashi Bamidbar 8:25
  6. Kesubos 17a
  7. Tehillim 2:11