A New Miriam (5773/2013)

Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aharon, took her drum in her hand.  All the women came out after her, with drums and dances.  Miriam answered them “Sing a song to God…” (Shemot/Exodus 15:20-21).

Enemies with chariots are defeated; Moshe sings a formal song of praise; his sister Miriam, a prophet, echoes a line in the song; and all the women follow her lead.

Imagine yourself a woman many years ago reading the book of Shemot.  You are quite taken by the character of Miriam, but you notice that she is a kind of second-class leader, kin to male leaders, echoing their words. You would like to see a story in which the woman herself is the leader. So you pick up your pen, and you write your version of the story of Devorah.

Devorah, a woman prophet (isha neviah), a fiery woman (eshet lapidot), judged Israel (Shoftim/Judges 4:4.)

Boldly, you call attention to Devorah’s gender. Instead of associating her with the element of water, you associate her with fire. She is not kin to a national leader; she herself is the leader. As the men will not go to war without her leadership, she co-leads the Israelites to victory with her male general, Barak. Together, with the help of the civilian woman Yael, they defeat an enemy army of charioteers. Together, they sing a formal victory song.

Devorah’s story offers a beautiful example of  “inner-Biblical interpretation,” and a prototype of modern feminist midrash. Celebrate the sages who chose to place it side by side with Miriam’s story, by designating it the haftorah for Beshalach. Have you given them credit for this bit of feminist vision?


decorated horseConfident Dream: Parshat Beshalach (5772/2012)

In Parshat Beshalach. Here, the Israelites and their mixed multicultural group of friends stand terrified at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, with Pharaoh’s military chariots behind them. Torah tells us that they do cross to freedom, while the pursuing horses and riders drown. Midrash adds that military leader Nachshon ben Aminadav leads them across. Hasidic thought adds that a unique revelation became available to everyone when the waters parted.

This week, Parshat Beshalach found its way into my dreams.

I’m a university student, late for PE class. I’ve left the sneakers I need to leap and play in another building, across the main campus road. But the road is flooded with water so deep that horses are submerged in it — beautiful, strong brown horses, wearing crimson and gold ribbons, swimming under the water. I am afraid to step into the water, so I look for a different way to get to my bouncy shoes. Perhaps there is a back way into a building with an overpass that crosses the road? I walk across narrow ledges, climb fire-escape ladders, force open steel doors…but there is no other way except to wade into the river full of floating horses.

What a powerful archetype the story of the Red Sea crossing is! Here it can help frame  many a situation in which we fear the risks of going forward. It can bring the recognition that once we move forward, waters will part, and we will be walking towards resolution. God will manifest within us as courage, resolve, and faith in the future.



Will the Real Miracle Please Stand Up? (5771/2011)

The Israelites have made it to the shores of the Sea of Reeds. In front of them lies an impassable giant lake. Behind them, Par’oh’s army approaches. What do the Israelites do? Thinking quickly, they begin to complain. Moshe keeps his cool. “Don’t you worry!” he says. “Gather and watch the amazing save that God is going to do for you today!”

But God seems to have different view. “What are you crying out to me for?” God says. “Speak to the Israelites, and they will go forwards!” Then God offers Moshe a second suggestion. “Raise your staff, stretch your hand out over the sea, and split it!” A few pesukim (verses) later, Torah tells us: “Moshe stretched out his arm over the sea, and Hashem drove the water with an east wind blowing all night. It turned the sea into dry land, and the sea was split.”

The Torah gives four explanations of what made it possible for the Israelites to travel forwards:

(1) Moshe reasoned with the frightened Israelites and they listened.

(2) Moshe, the skilled magician, who had esoteric knowledge of many specialized laws of energy-matter connections, used his knowledge to split the sea.

(3) God exercised hashgachah peratit, divine providence, and directed the forces of nature to help a particular group of people in mortal danger.

(4) Luckily, the weather cooperated that day, and the Israelites took advantage of the east wind rearranging the waters.

Which of these four miracles took place?

The beauty of the Torah’s account is that you don’t have to choose.


Black Fire on White Fire (5770/2010)

Parshat Beshalach includes the famous Shirat HaYam, (Song of the Sea). Scribal tradition writes this song out as a visual poem, where the layout is as important as the words.

Many midrashim have been created to put into words what people see in this visual image. The most famous describes the white spaces as surges of water. In another, the white spaces represent the walls of water, while the black letters represent the Israelites crossing one by one, in a long winding line, along a narrow strip of dry land. In yet another, the white spaces represent God’s tears, flowing between the words of victory, as God mourns the loss of the dutiful Egyptian charioteers, unwillingly obeying Pharaoh’s unjust orders.

Another famous midrash sees the white spaces as surges of fire. As Rashi puts it, “The Torah was written in primordial time, in the presence of God, with black fire on white fire.”

The “primordial Torah” differs from the physical Torah, which is written in a studio, in the presence of co-workers, with black ink on white parchment. It is older than time as we know it, perhaps even timeless. Like fire, it is dynamic and always moving. It is larger than the intellectual Torah that emerges at a particular time, in a particular language, through a particular culture.

All classical rabbinic thought accepts this big idea: the written Torah is a culturally relative document. It’s an expression of God, to be sure, but it came through a particular scribe (Moshe), in a particular location (wilderness), with a particular mission (nation-building). It is only one possible expression of primordial Torah. We who love Torah take on the responsibility of finding and expressing the primordial Torah that addresses our time. How will you participate?

This “short take” has not been circulated at Or Shalom.


Amalek’s Attack on the Disabled (5766/2006)

Amalek attacked Israel in Rephidim . . .God will be at war with Amalek in every generation.  (Shemot/Exodus 17:8, 16)

Blot out the memory of Amalek – don’t forget!  (Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:19)

In traditional Jewish thought, Amalek is the symbol of evil, an evil so great that God and the Israelites are eternally at war with it. Amalek attacked Israel in a place called Rephidim. “Rephidim” is related to an Arabic word that means “support or aid.”  Thus our sages say that Amalek attacked the part of the Israelite camp where those most in need of support congregated.  Amalek targeted the elderly, the ill, and the disabled.

Forgetting to blot out Amalek is as easy as falling into habitual patterns of thought and feeling.  When we lose patience with people because we forget our awareness of the wide spectrum of disabilities – sensory, physical, intellectual, mental/emotional – Amalek is awake within us.  When we have an easy opportunity to accommodate people with disabilities – e.g., through wheelchair ramps, microphones, adjustments in educational settings – and we don’t use the opportunity, Amalek is attacking.

We can diminish the power of Amalek through mindfulness and right action.  When we see each person as a human being with a mixture of qualities; when we remember not to see only disabilities that make us inconvenienced or uncomfortable; when we actively welcome the contributions of diverse people to our community: then we are remembering to blot out Amalek.

Inspired by Dr. Robin Friedlander

  1. Love these all and I plan to share the Miriam post (be-shem omro) with our Haftarah this week. I also loved the one about the White Fire, and I chuckled at:
    “What do the Israelites do? Thinking quickly, they begin to complain.” (Sounds like a good course of action).

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