Parashat B'shallach Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16
The poetic readings in Exodus, our Torah reading, and in the Haftarah (the week's prophetic passage from the book of Judges) give the character to this unique Shabbat of Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Poetry/Song (the same word in Hebrew).
One of the threads of these texts which is the varied role that women play in these two passages:
In the Sh'mot/Exodus passage, b'nei yisrael, the Israelites, are touched by God in the redemptive moment at the Sea of Reeds. The escaping Israelite slaves are caught between the Sea and the pursuing Egyptian army. The waters part, the Israelites pass through the Sea on dry land and the waters close over the Egyptian soldiers, chariots and horses. When the Israelites come to the realization that they have escaped slavery and the Egyptian army and that God has reached out to them in their most terrifying moment, they sing "the song at the sea," "shirat hayam."
I will sing to the Lord, mighty in majestic triumph.
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
Adonay is my strength and my might; God is my deliverance.
And Miriam is described as picking up a tambourine and leading the women in song. A spiritual leader inspiring everyone to give voice to their praise and gratitude.
In our haftarah, the judge, Deborah, summons the military leader Barak and conveys God command to bring forces against the Canaanite general, Sisera. Barak agrees only on the condition that Deborah accompany him on the campaign. As events unfold, Sisera is executed by Yael, a woman of a neighboring people (the Kenites) who sedates the general with warm milk and then drives a tent stake through his head (not a PG rated book, Judges!).
What is so fascinating is the variety of leadership roles these three women represent:
Miriam is the spiritual leader
Deborah is the political leader
Yael is the courageous warrior
A few millenia later, there are still a number of significant glass ceilings left for women to break through. It is a fascinating tension that the tradition that so lauded these three strong women has also discouraged women's leadership and participation in public venues. In the last forty years, much has happened in the Jewish world to change this . . . and many women are once again appreciated as leaders in a variety of roles, religious, political and even military, in the Jewish world.
Miriam, Deborah and Yael would be proud.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.