July 15, 1999
The Differences Between Men and Women
Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22)
All of us have observed an event or participated in a conversation only to come away with a perception of what happened that's completely different from the interpretations of others.
I imagine Moses' final speech to the Jewish people was such an experience, especially between men and women.
All of Israel is standing on a mountain and overlooking the land of Israel, with Moses at the top. Mothers are nursing. Children are playing games with rocks, sticks and sand. For days, Moses had been secluded in his tent. No one quite knows what he had been doing all alone. Since the death of his wife, Tzipora, he never likes to be alone. But, now, the end of his life is at hand. He seems distant from, rather than a part of, the masses.
As Moses looks out to his people, he better understands the distance he had felt from his fellow Israelites. These Jews no longer speak the Egyptian tongue, wear Egyptian clothing or use Egyptian references in their everyday interactions. Instead, their language is God's tongue of Hebrew mixed with some local phrases.
They only know a life of travel and instability, and not the pain of their parents' hardship in Egypt or the comfortable life that Moses had experienced in Pharaoh's home as a child. As the heat of the day begins to cool, Moses speaks in a whisper.
One day, when God leads each of us to our death, will we feel as disconnected as Moses? Will our children and grandchildren understand our passions and struggles? Will they appreciate our wisdom and forgive our shortcomings? Will they filter our words through their own experiences or be able to hear our teachings with a pure heart?
I imagine Moses is unaware of how some of the women might hear his final speech, which reviews the legal system, the sending out of spies, and Israel's troubles in the desert, specifically in the land of Esau, Moab and Ammon.
Perhaps Moses forgets that, with rare exception, only men can be chosen as judges in the legal system, go out as spies, and fight in the conflict against Bashan.
How are the women filtering Moses' words? When he speaks of the judicial system, I imagine women painfully remembering the Sotah women (Numbers 5) and proudly recalling the daughters of Zelophechad's trial (Numbers 25).
When Moses speaks of the spies, I imagine the women laughing under their breath as they remember the full story: How their "macho" men were actually frightened to death! How the men felt like grasshoppers in their own eyes.
Finally, I imagine the women crying over Moses' references to their sojourns through foreign lands. They recall the return of their sons, husbands and fathers from war. They remember how for weeks their men were vicious, retaining the taste of war in their mouth and the smell of violence on their skin. The men ate like animals as they tore meat off the bones, and they stared at their families like a lion about to jump his prey.
The Torah doesn't record the imagination, laughs and tears that I picture these women releasing. It's like modern-day trips to the ladies room after a performance in a theater or concert hall, where women share their associations, memories and feelings. We turn to each other in line and talk. Talk about what someone said or did, about our children, about our clothing, or about juggling our lives. We bring to the bathroom line the memories of our grandmothers, mothers, aunts and girlfriends. We remember the tight bodices they wore, the boardrooms in which they served coffee, the marches in which they demonstrated.
We exchange stories about broken hearts, alienation, secret loves, depression and steamy nights. And all along, the line keeps getting longer and longer. The stories continue.
Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.