January 17, 2008
Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
If you think the answer is obvious, perhaps it's because you've been conditioned by a society that stereotypes.
We've all heard the joke the best man cracks to his buddy the groom on his wedding day: "Remember, when you have a discussion with your wife always get the last two words in: 'Yes, dear.'"
Very funny. But is it a fair stereotype?
When God split the Red Sea, Moses and the Jewish men broke into spontaneous song. A long song. A song that is 19 long verses in the Torah -- I know, because we recite it every day in the prayers.
Afterward, the Torah records how Miriam gathered the women, along with musical instruments, and called out to the women: "Sing to God for He is truly exalted; having hurled horse and rider into the sea." (Prayers would be a lot shorter if we used Miriam's version.)
Why was Miriam, the woman, so terse in her song to God? Where is the trait of loquacity normally found in the fairer gender? Furthermore, does the terseness of her song mean that Miriam and the women were less grateful for the miracle of the Red Sea's splitting than the men?
Curiously, Miriam here is identified as "Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron" (Exodus 15:20). Wasn't she also Moses' sister? And why identify her by a sibling in the first place? The Talmud explains that Miriam's adventure in prophecy began when she was but a girl, even before Moses was born, when only she and Aaron were alive (hence, she was only "Aaron's sister").
Because of the terrible servitude in Egypt, Miriam's father and the other community elders wanted to give up on having children. But Miriam insisted that the Jewish nation had to continue growing despite the oppressive servitude. She said, "I know prophetically that my mother will sire the redeemer of Israel!" And so it was with the birth of Moses.
Miriam (and, it would seem, the other women of the time) had a much farther reaching gaze of the unfolding of Jewish history than the men. The men were able to witness the miracle before them and provide an exciting play-by-play analysis of God's ultimate and palpable victory over Egypt.
Miriam's perspective, however, was to look at the totality of the Jewish experience. She viewed the splitting of the Red Sea as necessary, seminal and miraculous, but still, just one more step in bringing the Jewish people closer to their ultimate end as the Chosen People.
This is why her comments are so abbreviated. She knew that we as a people haven't made it yet. We've been liberated, but we're still without a Torah to guide us, and still without a homeland where we can build our families.
In looking at other biblical prophecies we find that women prophetesses were more into the bigger picture, the eschatology of the Jewish people. The World to Come, known as the "the bond of life" in scripture, was prophesied by Abigail (I Samuel 25:29). Resurrection and proper silent prayer were prophesied by Hannah (I Samuel 2:6). Reincarnation was prophesied by the Tekoan woman to King David (II Samuel 14:14).
This is also why the Talmud states that the women did not worship the Golden Calf. The men suffered from shortsightedness, so when it appeared that Moses was dead, they fell into despair and took up a foreign god. But the women could see the bigger picture, and knew that the future of the Jewish people was bigger than any one individual leader.
Sometimes, stereotypes are on target. I like the stereotype of the Jewish grandmother, sitting silently in her rocker, smiling wisely in reminiscence with the knowledge that the Jewish people are stronger and longer-lasting than any one episode that forebodes "the end" of our people.
N. Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park, and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union's West Coast region.