Circles and Lines, or, The Original Women’s Liberation

“Miriam Dances” by Marc Chagall

A teaching on the Crossing of the Red Sea, from Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein, Maor VaShamesh, Parshat Beshalach

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת: וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם שִׁירוּ לַי־הֹוָ־ה כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם              Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with their timbrels and dancing. And Miriam called out to them, “Sing to the L!RD, Who is most exalted; horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.” Exodus 15:20-21

A close reading of these verses reveal several questions: What does this come to teach us, that all the women went out after Miriam? And where exactly did she take them? And why does it stress that they were dancing (1)? And why does Moses say I will sing to the L!RD (2), in the future tense, while Miriam says Sing to the L!RD, in the present tense?

It seems there is a hint in the teaching from the Talmud that “In the future the Holy One of Blessing will hold a dance for the righteous, and will sit among them, and each of them will point to G!d [saying] “This is G!d for Whom I have hoped,” and also in Rashi’s explanation that the dance will be in the shape of a circle, like the strip of land that separates one person’s orchard from another, for the word mechol has both meanings (3).

We can understand the connection if we look at how the cosmos was made. For when it arose in G!d’s simple will (4) to create the cosmos, G!d withdrew the divine Self and made a circle [of non-divinity within the infinite divine], and only then created the worlds with the Straight Line [of divine light which pierced the empty space]. All the worlds drew on the divine light [for their substance] in equal measure until the cosmos had manifested and the different worlds had begun to differentiate, each according to the amount of divine energy within it: in the highest world the divine Self only slightly limited the divine light, and in the next lower world there was more limitation, and so on  until the  last world (5). Even now, each world continues to receive the divine effulgence from above and gives of it to the world below, and the lower world must grow in order to receive the effulgence from above and learn from it how to serve G!d. And we [who live in the lowest world] grasp G!d in the opposite direction, from the bottom up, “raising the holy sparks” (6), growing as we pass from one level to the next, receiving more and learning at each stage how to  better serve G!d. So all the worlds and every created thing exist as “male” and “female,” for when something gives it is called “male,” and when it receives it is called “female” (7).

But in the future everyone will fix his or her soul to its root [in G!d], raising the holy sparks back up to the Creator, and the very essence of “outerness” will be nullified so that  no one and nothing is left “outside.” Then will the full brilliance of the divine light appear in every world, and the circle and the line will be equal; then there will be no such thing as male and female, for everything will grasp the divine light in equal measure, as in a circle, where there is no beginning and no end. Then no one will need to learn from another, just as each farmer whose orchard is circled by a mechol [receives his sustenance from his own share of land, and does not take from his neighbor’s] (8). This is the meaning of Jeremiah’s prophecy, “No longer will a person teach his neighbor,” for everyone, “from the smallest to the greatest,” will know G!d (9), and of the teaching from the Talmud, “In the future the Holy One of Blessing will hold a dance for the righteous, and will sit among them…”

This is also the meaning of the hakafot, the circle dances we dance on Hoshana Rabbah and Shmini Atzeret, which we perform in the mystery of Jeremiah’s prophecy, “[The L!RD will create a new thing on earth,] a woman will encircle a man” (10). For through the hakafot we bring down the divine light in which there is no male and female, and this was the intention of Miriam the prophetess when she led all the women out and danced hakafot with them.

Now the full brilliance of the divine light had not yet appeared when Moses and the others sang, and they had not yet come to a deeper understanding of G!d, so they spoke from a place where male and female exist separately; so they said I will sing to the L!RD, that is, “When I understand, then I will sing.” But Miriam brought down the divine light through her dancing, and then they achieved the highest understanding of divinity possible (11), and so she told them, Sing, now, to the L!RD.


1) The initial understanding of the word mechol is actually “a chorus,” which the Maor VeShemesh deems as redundant, since the verse already says they are singing; for this reason he deduces it must have its other meaning, “dancing.”  I jumped straight to the second understanding in my translation to avoid further confusing an already complex teaching.   2) Exodus 15:1   3) Taanit 31a: Ulla Bira’ah said in the name of R. Eleazar: In the days to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will hold a dance for the righteous and He will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden and every one of them will point at Him, as it is said, “And it shall be said in that day: Lo, this is our God, for whom we hoped, that He might save us; this is the Lord for whom we hoped, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation” (Isaiah 25:9). Rashi’s comment is based on a use of the word mechol (“chorus” or “dance”) in Mishnah Kilayim, Perek 4, Mishnah 1, to designate the bare strip of land separating one orchard from another.   4) G!d’s will is not something separate from G!d, as our will is separate from us; a better understanding of G!d’s will may be G!d’s “nature” (which would also be called “simple” and united, unlike our own).    5) The overwhelming brilliance of the light of Ayn Sof, the Infinite Divine, left no possibility for anything else. So the first step was to make room for something that was not Ayn Sof, and then to create that something with a limited amount of the divine light, each world being given only the amount of light it could withstand without being overwhelmed.   6) A motif taken from the creation myth of the Arizal. Click here for a quick explanation.   7) Based in large part on how sex works, since G!d’s creation of and continuing relationship with the emanated world is often understood in sexual terms.  8) This is a pretty astounding inclusion of an obscure comment on an unrelated halakhic discussion into a teaching on the deepest spiritual level. Having said that, the material was ripe for the picking (no pun intended), given the symbolic meaning of “land” as G!d and “orchard” as spiritual growth (see the running metaphors in Song of Songs, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, for example, and Chagiga 14b).   9) Jeremiah 31:34   10) Jeremiah 31:21; In the creation myth of the Line and Circles described above, the “highest” circle is also the largest and the closest to the surrounding light of Ayn Sof; so each circle is considered “male” to the one which it surrounds, which is considered “female.” A “female” encircling a “male” (or “turning into a male”) would undo the hierarchy.   11) It’s a little unclear whether the men reached this ultimate understanding, or only the women. I’m including the men based on my general sense of the teaching as well as the grammar in the original — a tricky business in hasidic texts, even one which is normally more precise like the Maor VeShemesh. It may be that men will not understand this until the final redemption. In another teaching on the Crossing of the Red Sea, the Maor VeShemesh cites the rabbinic teaching (Mechilta to Exodus 15:) that “The maidservant saw more at the Red Sea than Ezekiel in his vision.” The rabbis seem to be saying even a maidservant, but the Maor VaShemesh seems to read it as specifically the maidservant, and not the manservant.

Jeff says…

From the time of the prophets, the redemption from Egypt has been understood as a model for the final redemption: in Micah 7:15 G!d says, “As in the days of your leaving Egypt, I shall show them marvelous things.” The rabbis cited this verse and added, “Just as in Egypt, I shall redeem you in the future from subjugation to Edom and shall perform miracles for you” (Tanchuma, Toldot 17). There is another connection, this one within Jeremiah’s prophecy: “Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful.” The next line seems to lead us straight to Rashi’s comment cited at the start of the teaching: “Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit” (31:4-5). Not much later in the same prophecy comes the verse that is the crux of this teaching: “The L!RD will create a new thing on earth, a woman will encircle a man” (31:21). Speaking of creation, behind this all lies the Arizal’s creation myth and its dominant symbols of the Circles and the Line, with their sexual imagery (the seminal line piercing the womb-like circle only the most obvious). The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:15) even connects the Song of the Sea to the verse from Isaiah about G!d’s circle dance. So all the ingredients for the Maor VaShamesh are there, but what he does with them is nothing short of astounding.

There are several explanations for why women are not bound to all the mitzvot, specifically the “positive, time-bound commandments,” that is, those that have to be done at a certain time. These range from the practical (it would be unrealistic to expect women to keep these mitzvot while also facing the challenge of raising children and maintaining the home) to the misogynistic (women are too light-headed for the deeper spiritual matters) to the psycho-mystical (women are actually much more spiritual by nature, and so they don’t need all the discipline of the mitzvot to sanctify them, the way that men do). With this teaching, it’s pretty clear which one the Maor VaShamesh favors.

There was already a tradition, based on this prophecy from Jeremiah, that in the final redemption women would be made equal to men, and this was often seen through the view of Torah study as the ultimate value to mean that women would one day be able to study Torah on an equal footing with men. This tradition could be (and has been) used to exclude women from Torah study, pointing out that we haven’t yet reached the final redemption. An opposite approach, based in part on the Talmudic teaching above that the final redemption will come in stages, would give women a share in Torah now, in order to hasten that redemption. (This kind of “proto-redemptive activity” was a hallmark of early Hasidism — see the Kedushas Levi on “Hastening the Day of the L!RD” — although this is the first time I’ve seen it applied to the issue of gender roles in Judaism.)

So, as I understand it, the Maor VaShamesh holds up Miriam and the women’s singing and dancing as a model, asking how we will ever attain this redemptive Torah from the women if we don’t give them a chance to share it. But doing so — letting women teach the men — would mean a total reversal of the accepted hierarchy, which was seen as not only social but cosmic, connecting men and women in this world directly to the “male” and “female” aspects of the worlds above, where male means giver and female receiver, where giving is equated with teaching and receiving with learning. Exactly! I imagine the Maor VaShamesh saying — if you want a new world, you have to shake things up.

I’d like to close with the full text from Jeremiah’s prophecy partially cited above, for its sheer awesomeness:

“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the L!RD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their G!d, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the L!RD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the L!RD.

Click here for another teaching from the Maor VaShamesh on breaking down hierarchies. Click here for a teaching on the same Talmudic text by a fellow disciple of Elimelech of Lizhensk. Click here for a teaching by an earlier rebbe and fellow disciple of the Maggid of Mezeritch with Elimelech of Lizhensk, the Maor VeShemesh’s master, on which this teaching may well be based.

Here’s the original text. You’ll see that I’ve slightly abridged and rearranged it for clarity.

MaorVeShemeshBeshalach   MaorVeShemeshBeshalach2

This entry was posted in Beshalach, Concepts, Hasidic Masters, Holidays/Days of Remembrance, Hoshana Rabbah, Kalonymus Kalman HaLevi Epstein/ Maor VaShamesh, Parsha, Redemption, Seventh Day of Pesach, Shmini Atzeret. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Circles and Lines, or, The Original Women’s Liberation

  1. Pingback: Hastening the Day of the L!rd | Hasidism for the Rest of Us

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  5. Pingback: Resources for Exodus 15:20 - 21

  6. Pingback: Circles and Lines — the Maor vaShamesh on Parshat Beshalach | These and Those

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