This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, tells a story that we all know very well. It is the story of what happens to the Children of Israel right after they leave Egypt, and just before they arrived at the Red Sea. Pharaoh – as we all remember – finally lets the Children of Israel go; but then he changes his mind, and sends soldiers, riding in horse-drawn chariots after them ; Moses holds up his staff and the Sea splits; the Children of Israel cross through; then Moses lowers his staff, and the Egyptian soldiers, horses, and chariots are drowned.
Beshalach includes a famous poem, The Song of the Sea – Shirat Ha’Yam – that we just heard chanted in its beautiful and unique trope. This poem describes all that just happened – nd praises G-d for G-d strength against the Egyptians –one of our most well-known prayers, Mi Chamocah, comes from this poem. Who is like You among powers, God? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praise, doing wonders?
Directly after the song of the sea, the Torah reads: “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the drum in her hand, and all the women followed her with drums and dancing.” Oddly, this is the first time in the Torah that Miriam is called by her name. Earlier, she is referred to in relation to Moses, but never by her actual name. Not only is she called by her name here, she is also called “prophetess” – neviah. This is the first time she is named, and she is called a prophetess. Maybe some other kind of liberation is taking place as well?
The haftarah for Beshalach relates the story of another prophetess – Deborah, from the book of Judges. This story is less well-known, perhaps, than the Torah story. It takes place during the period of the judges, which was approximately 1220-1020 BCE. There were 15 or 16 judges in all, and Deborah was the fourth.
Here is the story: The people of Israel had been oppressed by King Yavin, King of Canaan, and his general Sisera for 20 years. G-d tells Deborah the time has come to fight. Deborah is instructed to call Barak, and tell him that G-d had ordered him to bring 10,000 men to fight a Sisera, and that G-d will deliver Sisera into Barak’s hands. Interestingly, Barak says to Deborah, "If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go." Barak senses that he needs Deborah’s help to win this battle. "Very well, I will go with you," she answered. "However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman." Interesting. Even 3000 years ago, if you were helped by a woman, it meant less status for you.
Barak and his men attack Sisera’s army, and Sisera flees in fear. All of Sisera’s men are killed. Sisera ends up in the tent of Yael, the wife of a friend of Sisera’s. She welcomes him, gives him food, and he falls asleep. Yael then takes the tent pin and a mallet and kills Sisera. When Barak comes looking for him, Yael informs him that he is “quite dead.”
This story is followed by a poem that Deborah and Barak sing together, the Song of Deborah, recounting the episode I just described, and praising G-d, similar to the Song of the Sea. It is easy to see the parallels between the Torah and Haftarah portions: water, G-d’s salvation, a strong woman, a song or poem.
This portion is perfect for Sisterhood Shabbat because it features strong woman figures – in both the Torah portion (Miriam) and Haftarah portion (Deborah), not to mention Yael and her tent pin.
On the other hand, reading through these portions, it was disturbing to how rarely strong women are featured in the Torah. Or rather, how infrequently women in biblical times were considered to having agency. Yes, we have Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah doing their thing… but there are few women mentioned actively participating in life in the Torah. Yes, those were different times. Yes the world has changed quite a bit. But what does this mean for us today?
In some ways, we’ve never had it so good. In the not too distant past, women weren’t allowed to be a part of a minyan to say kaddish, women weren’t allowed to have aliyot or to lead services. We have come a long way. Women in the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism are equal in every way to men. And there is movement toward equality even in Orthodox Judaism. But what does it mean that a parsha featuring two strong women is something that we notice as different? Something that is so rare in the Torah that we say: here is a parsha about strong capable women?
Feminist Letty Cottin Pogrebin, in her book Deborah, Golda, and Me, wrote these words 20 years ago: “The most outrageous false myth in Judaism is that women were not doing anything important….Even if most women were denied the opportunity of study, prayer, leadership and conquest, that doesn’t mean they were not being Jews...They were doing hard work, vital work – G-d’s work – creating Jewish life and nourishing Jewish families. If women had written the Bible, we would know about that work, and that work would be deemed important….”
Just because we can’t read in detail about our female ancestors, doesn’t mean we can’t use our imaginations. To think about the roles they played. And to know that – without them – we wouldn’t be standing here today, leading this special Sisterhood Shabbat, and talking about some biblical women we do know about who were pretty remarkable.