TORAH MINUTE – B’SHALLACH February, 1998
About six weeks ago, the Jewish Week contained, side by side, two of the most earth-shattering stories to hit the Jewish world in the modern era. These covered the hiring of a woman to a position of responsibility in an Orthodox congregation, and the revelation that Fig Newtons were to become Kosher. I’ll therefore concentrate this talk on the two facets of this week’s PARSHA which parallel those stories, Miriam’s Song and the description of the MANNA.
At the conclusion of the Song of the Red Sea, Miriam, known by now as a prophetess, took up her drum and led the woman of Israel in a separate song of thanksgiving. A question is asked as to how the women, unable to prepare food prior the Exodus, had time enough to pack their musical instruments? This is answered with the notion that the Women of Israel had perfect faith and knew that H’ would sustain them in the desert. They considered it wiser to spend their last few minutes before leaving Egypt preparing to offer songs in gratitude for the many miracles their faith told them they would witness.
The piety of Jewish women is reflected in a mystical interpretation of the SHIRA that, in my reading, invalidates some of our ancient traditions with respect to women. After the parting of the Red Sea, the Angels wanted to sing a song of thanksgiving first. H’ silenced them in deference to the men of Israel. Upon the conclusion of the men’s song, the Angels again wanted to sing, and H’ silenced them yet another time, in order to allow the Women of Israel to sing. In the hierarchy of the seven mystical firmaments, the firmament occupied by saintly individuals is on a level higher than even that occupied by the Angels. Women and men share this firmament equally, and for this reason H’ made the Angels wait until the Women of Israel completed their hymn of thanksgiving.
A contradiction between the status of women in the heavenly and earthly abodes appears when we compare this legend against an explanation of why the Women’s Song was accompanied by the sound of drums. According to ancient tradition, women’s voices were considered lewdness (KOL B’ISHA ERVA) and the drums were used to make their voices inaudible to the assembled men. Such traditions are the reason why the elevation of a woman to a responsible position in the Lincoln Square Synagogue was so monumental and so long overdue. Orthodoxy is challenged in our time to determine the exact limits of participation for women in the Synagogue and to effect this in the same open minded manner which, for example, showed us how to use electricity properly on SHABBOS rather than simply banning its use altogether. The Rabbinate must separate what is truly impermissible under HALACHA from what is nothing more than sexist tradition. Perhaps the MECHITZA will never disappear from the Orthodox SHUL, but Judaism’s finest hour will arrive on the day that the first pious, educated woman receives SMICHA in the Orthodox tradition – when a woman’s voice is no longer considered in Orthodoxy to be ERVA, but TORAH.
The word SHIRA is a feminine noun and in this is the lesson regarding prayers of thanksgiving. When a woman offers a song of thanksgiving after surviving the painful experience of childbirth, her joy is not wholehearted, for she knows that with her next pregnancy, she’ll undergo the ordeal anew. Similarly, when Jews offer praise upon deliverance from peril, our emotion is diminished by the knowledge that a new crisis can be just over the horizon. Prior to the coming of the MOSHIACH, a song of thanksgiving is called a SHIRA indicating that we receive, according to Jewish laws of inheritance, the woman’s portion (10 percent) of H’s legacy of peace. When the MOSHIACH comes we will no longer sing a SHIRA to celebrate our deliverance, but (from Psalms 98:1, MIZMOR SHIRU L’H’ SHIR CHADASH) we will sing a SHIR (masculine) which will commemorate our finally receiving the full measure of H’s peace and sustenance.
And that brings me to the second most important of the Jewish Week’s stories, Kosher Fig Newtons. This week’s PARSHA also describes the MANNA, the divine substance that fed B’NAI YISROEL throughout their forty-year journey through Sinai. H’ continued to provide the MANNA through the arrival in Israel, until the first Passover when the Israelites would henceforth be sustained by the produce of the Promised Land. Each PESACH, we read the portion of the book of Joshua which describes this first Passover and the cessation of the MANNA. But did the MANNA really cease at that time? I submit that the MANNA, even today, still descends from Heaven, in the form of our Torah and the scholars who teach it to us. Now that Kosher Fig Newtons are available to satisfy our physical cravings, perhaps we might heed the Prophet Isaiah’s call to concentrate less on our physical needs and "Let our souls delight in abundance." Good SHABBAS.