Shabbat Shirah Singing About Unsung Heroines of the Bible
I have a very dear friend , a psychologist, who is a women, very Jewishly knowledgeable and committed, who had a proposal to update the Hebrew word for God—Why not feminize what has always been a masculine concept and instead of Elohim, create a new word, add “kamatz-heh” the feminine ending, and make it—“Elohima”.
Well, other than mangling Hebrew grammar, it may not be such a bad idea to recognize that in Judaism, while we have always had a very masculine look at everything, there is also a feminine look at everything.
This Shabbat is called “ Shabbat Shirah”, the Sabbath of Song, because in this portion of Beshalach, we read the “Shirat Hayam”, the Song at the Sea, the Song of Deliverence that the children of Israel sang in as they saw the Egyptian forces swept away in front of their eyes. Certainly we have, in this song, a very masculine concept of God,” Ish Milchamah” , literally, “ A Man of War.”
However, at the very end of the Song, we are introduced to Miriam, who leads the women in their own song and dance of triumph, “ Ki Gao-Gaah—he has excelled and thrown both horse and rider into the sea.” “Haneviah” the Prophetess,” The Sister of Aaron. Not the sister of Moses, but the sister of Aaron.
Why not “ Sister of Moses”? Wait, Moses is not called “ Navi” prophet, until the very end of the Torah. Miriam, our commentators said, was already a “Prophetess” before Moses, when she was still only the Sister of Aaron, forseeing that a Deliverer would be born. So, Moses, the great, is upstaged by his sister!
The Song of the Red Sea is paralleled by the Haftarah, the Song of Devorah. Here too, a song, a very masculine song, of military triumph, but sung by a woman, Devorah, who is very feminine-“ Em beyisrael”—“The mother of Israel” she describes herself, a judge of the people, and the very triumph comes, not at the hand of the male warrior, but at the hand of a woman, Yael. Here, too, the woman takes precedence over the man.
There are some less famous women of the Bible, besides the usual matriarchs or Queen Esther, that have a lot to teach us. These are the Unsung Heroines of the Bible.
The theme of the Shabbat is the Song of the Sea, and it marks the culmination of the Exodus, yet where would the children of Israel have been if not for the women.
First, there are Shifrah and Puah
. Had it not been for Shifrah and Puah, there would have been no one left alive for Moses to save. Pharaoh appointed these two women, who were midwives, to, deliver all the Israelite children, with the orders to kill all male children at birth, and allow only the females to live, females who could later on be sold off for the harems of various government officials. All that we know about these two women from the Bible is that they were God-fearing which means that they had utter contempt for the Pharaohs orders,and, rather, saved all the children.
It is surely with these two women that we have the invention of Hutzpah as a Jewish trait for it is with Hutzpah that
they answer the Pharaoh, who is boiling mad at them. Their answer surely ranks highest in the annals of pure nerve:
"These Hebrew women aren't like the Egyptians. They are wild beasts; they give birth by themselves, without the aid of
The Passover Hagadah credits the women of Israel as a whole with saving the nation- the men are despondent at Pharaohs order to slay the male sons and separate from their wives in protest. There will be no more children. Our commentaries credit the women, not the mean, with the determination to create a new generation despite the threat hanging over them.
Years later, when the children of Israel wander in the desert, who remain loyal to Moses and to God? Not the men, but the women. The Rabbis were quick to notice this in the incident of the Golden Calf, Aaron tells the men "take your wives’ earrings and nose rings, and I will use it", but, instead, we are told, the men brought only their own gold. Why? It was obvious—the women wanted nothing to do with a Golden Calf.
What of women of physical courage. We all know about Devorah, the judge, who organized the army of the
tribes to defeat the oppressive Canaanites, yet the final victory was in the hands of another women, who has never gotten sufficient credit, Yael . Yael is not even an Israelite . It is Yael who takes the villain Sisera into her home and she alone kills the general. Of her, Devorah sings, "Blessed above women is Yael, the wife of Hever the Kenite, blessed above the women of the tents."
Devorah contrasts Yael, the activist, with the women in General Sisera’s court. These women imagine their brave soldiers dividing up the women they have captured, and they use a very degrading term” Rechem-rechmatayim”—These women are not more than a uterus—that is their vision of a woman and they fantasize about the colored cloths their brave warriors will bring back with them from the captured women. Right their Devorah ends their vision with a denunciation” Kach Yovdu”- “Thus shall all your enemies perish, O Lord”.
How about women as actual warriors?
One woman single handedly saved the people of Israel from a dictator in the time of the Judges.
We know of Gideon, a great hero, but we don’t know of Gideon’s son, Avimelech,a great tyrant. Whle his father refused the crown of Kingship. Avimelekh tried to take it by force, murdering all his brothers and then crushing any rebellion against him. One woman single-handedly stopped him dead in his tracks.
Avimelekh led the charge against the rebel town of Tevetz .An unknown woman, who could have easily sat in her room, away from the battle raging outside, took action. She took her only weapon, the millstone she used to grind her flour. Nobody paid attention to an odd woman carrying her millstone. She climbed to the parapet of the tower where the fight was raging, spotted the enemy leader directly below her, and let the stone fall. Directly on Avimelech. His skull is crushed, he looks up to see the woman above, and is ready to die, not of his wound, but of his shame. He begs his sword bearer to run him through, lest people say that he had been killed by a woman. Yes, justice done by a woman.
The women of the Bible are also political negotiators, who, by their wise words, can save a city from destruction. The town of Abel Bet Maacah gave refuge to an enemy of King David. David's general, Yoav, is about to storm the city, about to destroy it and all the inhabitants, when, in the midst of battle, a woman appears on the wall and demands to speak to the general. Imagine the scene as the fighting suddenly ceases so that this unnamed heroine can speak; "Our city is like a watchful mother of Israel and you seek to kill her! Would you destroy the Lord's own possession?" With that, she succeeds in arranging for the delivery of the rebel into the general's hands and saves the city.
What about worship?
The most central concept of modern Judaism today is worship. Surely whatever else Jews may do or not do, at least they come to the synagogue to pray, even if only once a year. Yet, we find nowhere, in the Torah, an explicit command to pray, nor do we find, in the worship of the Temple, any concept prayers of that expressed the feelings of the participants until later, when the Psalms are written.
Again, the is credit due to not a man, but a woman.
Hannah,a barren women, comes to the sanctuary at Shechem to silently pour her heart out in prayer at the altar. Who enters but the High Priest ,Eli, who is dumbfounded at this? A .women at the altar, mumbling, moving her lips, incoherent? Altars are for sacrifices, not for what he presumes to be a drunken stupor. The great priest cannot tell the difference between an honest outpouring of longing and faith from a hang-over. It takes a simple country woman from the hills of Ephraim to teach him. It is just this woman's prayer that forms the Haftarah read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
The great bulk of the Bible is the work of a special class of people known as prophets, and this, too, is not an exclusively male domain as I mentioned with Miriam. Several centuries after Solomon, the Temple had fallen in a state of disrepair .Finally, it was cleansed and renovated .The High Priest found, in one of the chambers, a book of the Torah that had been long forgotten. In excitement, he showed it to the King and they concluded that something of a discovery of such a degree must be looked into in greater depth. After all, according to the words of this book, dire consequences were in store for the kingdom of Judea. It was natural then to rush to the foremost prophet of the day and determine what that meant. To whom then did they turn? Not to Jeremiah, whom we all know about from his writings ,but to a prophetess, Huldah. It was she who validated for them the book, which we presume to have been the fifth of the Five Books of Moses The woman, Huldah, was the prophet they trusted for wisdom.
Think then, to what we owe these women of the Bible, of whom we hear little about yet who did so much in the course of the beginnings of the Jewish people: saving the children form slaughter, delivering from outside invaders, serving as wise counselors and prophets.
In truth there is no lack of great women.leaders, in later ages as well. There was Bruriah-,wife of Rabbi Meir, who herself was author of certain Rabbinic ordlnances.
There was Rufina, the first Jewish woman president of a synagogue, in ancient Greece, some 1800years ago. There was a women who headed import-export operations in medieval Egypt.
There was a Hannah Ruchel-The Maid of Ludomir-the Hassidic- woman Rebbe, who wore Tallit and Tefillin and preached to her Hasidic followers over a century ago.
At the beginning, I mentioned my friends suggestion, to give God a feminine side-but this too was done—in the Midrashic lore, as “ Shekhinah” , God’s presence, and in Kabbalah, as “ Matrona”, the Lady, or “ Malkah” the Queen, so that God has a masculine and a feminine aspect that balance each other.
Now , in our day, we look to our women to shoulder the burden of Judaism -side by side-or even ahead of the men. We have women on the bimah, women as Rabbis and Cantors, women as Leaders of synagogues and Jewish communal organizations, a woman. as Head of the State of Israel. We hope that this new openness will lead to a greater creativity and a flourishing of the spirit of Torah in the 21 st century. Amen.