Murmuring and Social Change
Shabbat Shira/The Shabbas of Song
This is a momentous week in the Israelite journey: escaping Egypt, they race to the water’s edge, only to be caught between the sea and the approaching Egyptian army. This is the final birthing-push across living waters, when a new people will be born. Heroically, GD instructs Moses to hold his staff over the waters, and, well, you know the rest.
Once on the other side, the Egyptians drowned and their corpses piled on the shore, the Israelites immediately begin to complain.
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore its name was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? (Ex. 15:23-24)
Biblical commentary often focuses on this eruption of complaint and lament, so soon after liberation. But I want to zero in on the word used, murmer. It is from a reflexive form of the verb, meaning that they got themselves murmuring: a quiet, private mumbling that slowly grew into a groundswell of protest.
If we stick with the complexity of this word, murmur, some deep Torah is found. When does a murmur become a protest? Are the voices being furtively generated in insolence and a lack of gratitude? Are they the beginnings of a people beginning to awaken to their new situation? This week the people, for the first time perhaps, looked around and noticed not just a lack of water or meat, but that there was no apparent system that would sustain them. Beginning in the intimate voice of a murmur, their voices pile up, rising to a pitch that brings to awareness their anger, fears and frustration first to themselves, then to each other, and then to their leader, who brings the concern to the god, and their needs are answered. What begins in quiet can end up being quite loud.
A murmur is subtle, a voice that barely crosses the line between thought and speech; it onomatopoetically hums its way to awareness. Once shared, with oneself as well as with others, it is not long before a murmur becomes a murmuration, a flock of birds that forms itself into a force of nature in its beauty and organized chaos. For the recently enslaved, it is an almost indiscernible process of what is hinted at internally, breaking through an oppressed and constricted mentality to erupt out and through the voice of a people.
This past week, we witnessed the 2nd annual women’s march; interestingly, “I can’t keep silent” remains the anthem. We are witnessing the emergence of a human murmuration, of articulated speech that awakens those who have been keeping their lament at the level of murmuring, of muttering. The emergence feels chaotic, with no apparent leader, yet the murmuration has left the ground and is swooping its way through increasing awareness and ‘getting woke’. With that awakening, that quickening (if we are to use the vocabulary of the birthing process), the lament that was held quiet, private, has broken through to flight. May it continue to do so.
Murmuring and Social Change