“Unmute yourself.” This was the subject line of an email I received, asking people to speak out about an issue.
It was a wonderful way during this pandemic to communicate a message about communications. We have been on Zoom so many times, and can’t begin to count the times we’ve heard “unmute yourself!” and “we can’t hear you!” and “turn your microphone on!”
It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago we’d never heard these phrases, never worn a mask in public, never had to stand far away from people at the grocery store. Now it’s our new normal.
But the phrase “unmute yourself” resonated with me on another level. In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, God splits to Reed Sea (aka the Red Sea), the people cross on dry land, and when they get to the other side they see Miriam and the women dancing and singing.
Miriam had disappeared from the Exodus story as soon as she handed the baby Moses over to Pharaoh’s daughter. She finally reappeared at this triumphant moment, and it is here that the Torah calls her Miriam ha’nevia, Miriam the prophetess.
Where was she during the plagues, the preparations to leave, the desperate flight from Egypt? She was muted. Muted by a society that paid little heed to women unless they were talking about babies. Muted by men who assumed that women could not take a leadership role. Muted by expectations of being unworthy simply because they were women.
It has taken such a long time to leave those ideas behind. In truth, we haven’t. In many areas of our American society and other societies around the world, patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes still prevail.
It’s too bad. Women have proven that we bring skills and talents that enhance everyone’s life, regardless of gender. Women lead major corporations, entire nations, recite their poetry to millions of people. Women of all colors and religions have responded to the needs of their communities, overcoming obstacles that can seem insurmountable.
Miriam broke the glass ceiling long before it was invented. While Moses sang a song of conquest, Miriam danced, played her timbrel, and led the women in song. She knew that the people needed much more than a solo concert by her brother. They needed joy, they needed community, and they needed to see that even in the worst of times, there is always hope.
Who brings an instrument with them while fleeing from certain death? People who can still hope. That’s why Miriam brought a tambourine, and why she encouraged the other women to do the same. She knew something important about the needs of the community, and for once, she refused to be muted.
Geoff Huntting said:
Love your commentary, but remember your wonderful ordination, and the five (not one) women who saved Judaism. Sometimes some women are muted where others are not? Being Moses’s sister gave her yichus, but Pharoah’s daughter didn’t even have a name. Some commentaries denied that Pu’ah and Shifra could no have been Egyptian, for only Hebrew women would have done such an act of defiance. I guess it all depends on who has the power to mute.