This week’s Torah reading, Beshalach, is called Shabbat Shira- the Shabbat of Song. We read three songs- Miriam’s song after crossing the Red Sea, Moshe’s “Song of the Sea,” and Devorah’s song of victory. Women sing and play music in both the Torah and haftarah readings, and they are also significant figures in these biblical stories.
Before focusing on our heroines, Miriam, Devorah, and Yael, I will mention some elements from this week’s parashah. The Israelites have fled Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army are in quick pursuit. God splits the Red Sea so the Israelites can cross to the other side. We read about the manna that appears to feed the hungry people. God introduces the notion of “Shabbat” by sending two portions of manna on the sixth day so that everyone can refrain from collecting food on the seventh day, Moses sweetens the water in this parashah and we read about the battle with the Amalekites.
Miriam is called a prophet in this parashah. She and her brothers, Moses and Aaron, lead b’nei Yisrael to freedom. God has confidence in the abilities and wisdom of women and chose Miriam to be the female role model for the nation. She exemplified strength and leadership. After crossing the Red Sea, Miriam led the women, celebrating with song and dance.
Devorah the Prophet by Laya Crust
Devorah was a judge and prophet who led the Israelites for 40 years. She sat under a palm tree to meet with her people. The haftarah tells of a battle waged by the Canaanites against the Israelites. The Jewish commander, Barak, asks Devorah to lead the battle with him. She warns Barak that a woman will be credited with the victory if she goes, but he still insists on her help.
Yael Killing Sisera Maciejowski Bible, ca 1240
Yael, the other significant woman in the haftarah, is not a Jew but a Kenite. After the battle, Sisera, a general, flees from the Jews, seeking refuge with Yael. She gives him warm milk to drink, covers him with a blanket, then drives a tent peg through his temple, killing him. The haftarah is unusual in that it features two women- Devorah and Yael- as heroic characters.
Devorah writes a song of praise, mentioning herself as a mother of Israel, Barak as a leader, and Yael as a heroine. The end of the song is powerful. Devorah describes Sisera’s mother waiting at the window for her triumphant son to return home from battle. Devorah sings, “…The mother of Sisera…moaned…’Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his steeds so tardy? …Have they not found spoils and treasure? Have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera many kinds of plunder…?”. Devorah describes the scene- a mother waiting for her son- all the while knowing Sisera has been murdered. The mother’s pride that her son has successfully killed, looted, and abducted the Israelites is disquieting.
The women in the parashah and haftarah show strength and leadership. God chose Miriam to be one of the three leaders of the children of Israel as they trekked towards freedom. God appointed Devorah and later Hulda as prophets and made Yael a hero.
Women may not be mentioned in our writings as often as men, but women were essential leaders and educators then, as women are today. Let’s work in strength and harmony, and sing in harmony too!
Have a joyous and tuneful Shabbat,