Leading Role of Women in the Exodus and in the Shirah

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13 Feb 2014

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, which is always read during the month of Shevat, that Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Moshe and Aharon 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 asks where did she display this capability, and answers that it was when only Aharon was alive, before Moshe was born, and Miriam prophesied that her mother would bear 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)

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 “Shoftim,” or “Judges” (4:4 – 5:31). It deals with the Battle of Israel, under the leadership of Barak, son of Avinoam, general of the forces of Israel, 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.” (Shoftim 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.” (Shoftim 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.

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. 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.” (Shoftim 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, and the Battle coincided with an intense meteor shower, which provided illumination well into the night, and aided in the pursuit and defeat of Sisera and his forces.

The song closes with 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 the next-to-final verse “says it all:” “So may all Your enemies be destroyed, Hashem; And let those who love Him be like the powerfully rising sun.” (Shoftim 5:30)