In this month of Shvat, we read the story of Miriam the Prophet, Moshe’s sister, in the moments after the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. When the people liberated from Egyptian slavery move on dry land through the sea G-d parted and arrive safely on the other side, Miriam raises her timbrel and triumphantly leads the women in dance (Exodus/Shmot 15:20-21).
What a glorious moment of embodied prayer! We read this story during a special Shabbat called Shabbat Shirah (Shabbat of Praise-song).
I love this tale, in part, because it shows Miriam at the height of her power. She is a mature woman, a leader, years older than the courageous young girl who once watched over her brother when he was set adrift in the Nile — and who boldly approached Pharaoh’s daughter to suggest that Moshe’s own mother be his wetnurse.
The mystical Kabbalah tradition offers a fascinating interpretation of this moment. The book Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine & Feminine, by contemporary Kabbalist Sarah Schneider, lifts up the work of the great modern Hasidic teacher Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman HaLevi Epstein (1753-1825, Poland), also called the Maor VaShemesh.
The Maor VaShemesh suggests that for one wonderful moment, Miriam the Prophet brought a foretaste of the Messianic world-to-come into her present reality. He called this the Circle World, to describe the radical equality we are told the world-to-come will offer. Just as each point in a circle is unique and also equidistant from the center, so too will every person remain a unique individual and be equal in their relationship to G-d.
The Maor VaShemesh compares Miriam’s song to her brother Moshe’s chant, the Song of the Sea. Whereas Moshe had prophesied in future tense: (Exodus 15:1-18) chanting, “I will sing to HaShem!” Miriam’s song begins in the present with the imperative, “Sing! To HaShem,” (Exodus 15:21).
In effect, she creates a rupture in time, transporting the women to Circle World. The Maor VaShemesh links Miriam’s prophecy with the prediction found written in the Talmudic text Taanit 31a: “G-d will make a circle dance for G-d’s tzadikim (righteous ones).” This prediction ends Masechet Taanit (the book of fasts) with the assurance that the days of fasting and entreaty will come to their end and we will dance around G-d in Edenic equality and abundance.
The Maor VaShemesh further links the prophetic hints in Taanit about a better day with mystic speculations about the creation of the world. According to the Ari, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), there was at first no universe, nothing but the Ayn Sof, the infinite, perfect presence of G-d.
Somehow, this perfect Infinite conceived a longing for relationship, the Ari says. So, the Ayn Sof created Space and Time — and difference. G-d extruded differentiated midot (aspects) of Themself — such as Kindness and Justice, Making and Understanding — through a process of conception into actualization — states of being culminating in matter: our material universe. The Ayn Sof created vessels to contain the Divine energy until it could be transformed into the physical world. But the vessels could not contain these manifestations of spirit and shattered into sparks that fell to the world and became encased in klipot (shells of matter).
Says the Ari, when we perform acts of kindness or pray or observe mitzvot or study Torah, sparks of holiness are released and fly to the Source. Eventually, thereby, the world will be healed and whole.
The Maor VaShemesh adds something special to this idea. Perhaps you have seen Tree of Life images, with the aspects of G-d, the sefirot, descending from a crown through a kind of ladder down to our earth. The Maor VaShemesh points to old texts in which the midot extend as concentric circles emanating from the One. He teaches that, following the shattering of vessels, our current world of linear hierarchy became necessary as rectification; as a structure to hold the shattered creation together and, with its conditions of exile, war, competition and pain, as a kind of “boot camp” for souls, teaching us to choose goodness when the alternative seems to be so much more practical.
The Maor VaShemesh teaches that when we attain a critical mass of goodness, and enough sparks are released, we will attain Circle World. Distinctions like race, class, and gender will disappear, and “Everyone will know G-d in a way that is perfect and unique.”
Paraphrasing the Maor VaShemesh, Schneider writes:
“Just as a circle has no beginning or end and every point is equidistant from its center, so is this true for souls. …Each creature will eventually attain its full potential and shine with the unique revelation of Divine beauty that only it can manifest. The spiritual bliss of the world to come is the intensely abiding joy of finally becoming who you are. When that happens the distorting veneer of hierarchy will melt away and, behold, we will find ourselves standing in a circle with HaShem at its center, and we will dance together in holy celebration…
“All this Miryam knew and intended when she led the women in their circle dance. Miryam drew the future into the present, initiating the Jewish nation into the secret truth, promise, and yearning of the circle world….”
According to the Exodus story, each of Miriam’s brothers receives a holy office. Moshe becomes Moshe Rabbeinu — the greatest prophet and teacher of them all. Aaron becomes High Priest, offering ritual containers for the peoples’ prayers and dreams.
And Miriam? The Tanakh doesn’t say much about her after that moment by the sea, other than to say that, at the end of her life, Miriam lashes out bitterly over her marginalization — a marginalization that many mature women at the height of our powers know all too well. Our Rabbis, not content to let her be so neglected, spun a gorgeous tale of Miriam’s miraculous well that follows the people through the wilderness, yielding fresh water and refreshing fruit. At The Well is named, in part, for this wonder.
To this we can add the story of Miriam’s power exploding into time and space, pulling the world to come into the mundane. A prophetic woman in a patriarchal world, Miriam marshaled all her spiritual gifts, blessing her sisters with brief immersion in a world where people of every gender and every age are equally and uniquely valued.
Understand—we don’t have to take any of this literally. Kabbalistic mysticism offers us a system of metaphors for why the Infinite would create the finite and imperfect. G-d craves relationship, and only creatures who are different from one another and possessed of free will can choose to relate with each other and the Creator; can grow, change, and astonish.
Further, this tale shows we are not forever condemned to perceive difference as a threat. Equality of condition is not erasure of individual uniqueness but rather the means of its flowering. Social hierarchies are not inevitable and not the will of G-d.
Our lives can change. Radically.
This message is especially resonant for women and nonbinary people who are living the second half of our lives. Can we aspire to the spiritual audacity of Miriam, leading our communities in celebratory visioning of a better future? Can we embody the quality of Joy, one of At The Well’s key values? Even, or especially, in these uncertain times, can we respond to adversity as our ancestors did, celebrating our wins and bringing a better future into being? Can we dance like the whole world is watching?
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine & Feminine, Sarah Schneider
Sefer Etz Chaim (teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria), retrieved from Sefaria.org