Shabbat Parshat Beshalach - 5759 "The Role of Women in the Exodus, at War,
and in Song" In the Exodus The Midrash teaches that Jewish women played a major role in the Exodus, by keeping alive the spirits of their husbands, preventing them from becoming depressed under the burden of slavery, and giving up in despair. They accomplished this by paying special attention to their appearance, and charming and enticing their husbands, thus keeping their marriages and the Jewish Family alive, under extremely difficult circumstances. They did this by using mirrors made of copper. Later, when donations were requested for the Construction of the Mishkan, the women donated these mirrors for use in the copper elements of the Sanctuary. Their acceptance for this purpose demonstrates the important principle that in Judaism, feminine beauty serves a great role, (primarily) within the holy and modest context of marriage. In the Shirah The Chumash records in Parshat Beshalach that Miriam the Prophetess led the women of Israel in drum-accompanied music and in dance, after Moshe had led the men in singing the "Shirat HaYam", the Song of the Sea. Commentators discuss why the Chumash here identifies her only as the "sister of Aharon," omitting the relationship with Moshe. One explanation is that since she is referred to here as a Prophetess, the Midrash silently asks the question of where did Miriam display this capability, and answers that it was when only Aharon was alive, before Moshe was born. It was then that Miriam prophesied that her mother would give birth to the "Savior of Israel." The text reads as follows: "Miriam, the Prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took her drum in her hand, and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. Miriam called to them, 'Sing to Hashem, for he is utterly transcendent, having hurled the horse and its rider into the sea.' " (Shemot 15, 20-21) The Essence of Shirah What is the essence of song? Perhaps two hallmarks may be discerned. One is a deep sense of "hakarat hatov," gratitude, which takes form in words and wells up, under Divine inspiration, from the soul. The other is a sense of triumph over one's enemies. Both elements seem to be present in the Song of the Sea, the Song of Devorah, and the Song of Chanah. In Another Shirah The Haftarah (the selected portion from the Prophets, read on each Shabbat, to complement the Torah Reading) of Shabbat Shirah is taken from The Book of "Shophtim," or "Judges" (4:4 - 5:31). It deals with a crucial Battle of Israel, under the leadership of Barak, son of Avinoam, general of Israel's forces, but more crucially, under the leadership of Devorah, the Prophetess and Judge, who rallies Barak to action. The Haftarah begins by introducing the character of Devorah, "Devorah was a Prophetess, a fiery woman (others translate the expression "aishet Lapidot" not as "fiery woman," but as "wife of Lapidot," a gentleman who is not mentioned again - take your pick; from the Biblical narrative, I prefer the former); she was the Judge of Israel at that time." (Shophtim 4:4) Barak hesitates to enter the Battle against Yavin, King of Canaan, and his fearsome and seemingly invincible general, Sisera, and says to Devorah that he will not go unless she accompanies him. She responds that he may do so, and that Israel will still be victorious, but that he will not be recognized as the hero; rather, a woman other than herself will be the heroine, and history will remember her as the one who defeated Sisera and saved Israel. The account of the Battle is given. Israel defeats the army of Sisera, and the Canaanite general flees for his life on foot, into apparently friendly "Kenite" territory. There, he approaches the tent of Yael, the wife of Chever, the Kenite, who says to Sisera, "Turn, my lord, turn to me, do not fear." (Shophtim 4:18) She proceeds to ply him with milk until he becomes drowsy, and she covers him. She then takes the tent-peg and a hammer, and drives the peg into the general's forehead, killing him. (The reader may notice a parallel to the act of Yehudit, who will perform a similar act of heroism approximately 1,000 years later, as part of the Resistance to Greek and Hellenist oppression, at the time of Chanukah). When Barak, who has been pursuing Sisera, approaches, he is told by Yael that the man he is looking for is in her tent, and has been rendered harmless. the Song of Devorah The Prophetess Devorah then sings a song in praise of G-d and of the heroes and, mainly, the heroine of the story, Yael. This great song is of course the reason that this selection was chosen as the Haftarah of Shabbat Shirah. In the song, she praises the Tribes of Israel who valiantly participated in the Battle, and castigates those Tribes who, because of their cowardice, would not go. One interesting verse reads, "From the heavens they fought, the stars from their pathways, fought against Sisera." (Shophtim 5:20) One wonders at the nature of the miraculous intervention of the "stars" on behalf of Israel. Perhaps it was an "open miracle" of the incredibly fortuitous timing variety, such that the battle may have coincided with an intense meteor shower, frightening Sisera's superstitious troops while providing illumination well into the night, aiding in the pursuit and defeat of the enemy's forces. Or perhaps it was a miracle of another sort. We are shown a portrait of Sisera's mother awaiting the return of her son. Her ladies-in-waiting assure her that the delay is certainly due to the tormenting of the captured Israelite women and the division of the plunder and booty of the war. But Devorah's song concludes differently, "So may all Your enemies be destroyed, Hashem; And let those who love Him be like the sun, rising in its glory." (Shoftim 5:30) Chanah and Shmuel The Book of Shmuel Aleph opens with the account of the birth of the Prophet, Shmuel (Shmuel Aleph 1 (entire chapter)). The Bible describes Shmuel's father, Elkanah, in the following manner, "He had two wives, the name of one being Chanah and the name of the second being Peninah; Peninah had children, but Chanah had no children." Because of her barrenness, Chanah feels frustrated and unfulfilled, despite the fact that Elkanah is a loving husband, especially because of the presence in the family of the second wife, Peninah. During the family's annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, temporary location of the Mishkan, Chanah prays to Hashem for a boy, whom she vows to dedicate to His Service. From her prayers are derived many of the Laws of Jewish Prayer. Eli, the Priest, observes her at prayer, and since this intensity at prayer was not commonly observed, concludes that Chanah is a drunkard. After Chanah dispels this notion, Eli blesses her that Hashem would fulfill her request. When Eli's blessing comes true, and Shmuel is born, Chanah honors her vow and brings her son to serve Hashem, with Eli, at the Mishkan of Shiloh. The Song of Chanah In the beginning of her song, she speaks of her "antagonists;" most likely referring by this to those of little faith who did not believe that Hashem could help her in her trouble. Then she universalizes and directs her song of triumph towards antagonists of G-d who are completely powerless in that struggle. For the first time, we hear Chanah's voice in her prayers to Hashem: (Shmuel Aleph 2:1-10) "Chanah prayed and said, 'My heart exulted in Hashem, my pride was raised through Hashem, my mouth opened wide against my antagonists, for I rejoiced in Your salvation. There is none as holy as Hashem, for there is none beside You, and there is no Rock like our G-d. Do not abound in speaking arrogance upon arrogance, let not haughtiness come from your mouth; for Hashem is the G-d of thoughts, and deeds are counted by Him. The bow of the mighty is broken, while the foundering are girded with strength. The satisfied are hired out for bread while the hungry ones cease to be so, while the barren woman bears seven, the one with many children becomes bereft. Hashem brings death and gives life, lowers to the pit and elevates. Hashem impoverishes and makes rich, He humbles and He exalts. He raises the needy from the dust, from the trash heap He lifts the destitute, to seat them with nobles and make them inherit a seat of honor - for Hashem's are the pillars of the earth, and upon them He sets the world. He guards the feet of his devout ones, but the wicked are stilled in darkness; for not through strength does man prevail. O Hashem - may those who fight with Him be shattered, against each of them let the heavens thunder, may Hashem judge to the ends of the earth, May He give power to His king and raise the pride of His anointed.' "
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU