For Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco, California
© February 2009 by Rabbi Pamela Frydman
Shabbat shalom. I am standing in the place where our beloved Rabbi Alan Lew zichrono livracha (of blessed memory) liked to stand when he shared words of Torah, and I would like to dedicate these words to his memory.
In this week’s parsha, G!d is sending the Israelites out of Egypt by a circuitous route that takes them by way of the Sea of Reeds—rather than the more direct route through the land of the Philistines—in order to avoid having the Israelites be confronted by war with the Philistines, because G!d was worried that the Israelites would choose to return to Egypt rather than face armed conflict.
Like a social worker trying to wean a victim of domestic violence from a violent home life, G!d Almighty is scheming to get our ancestors out of slavery and keep them out of slavery. To help the slave minded Israelites become accustom to the harsh challenges of existence in a free world, G!d concocts the most amazing of circumstances that saves them from war by placing them directly between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The Israelites leave Egypt on foot. They walk with their flocks and their meager slave possessions that doesn’t even include a change of clothes. They carry the jewelry given them by the Egyptians and weapons from whose knows where, and they walk and they walk and soon they arrive at the Sea of Reeds.
Meanwhile, Pharoah is already returning to his hardened hearted evil ways. He orders his generals to gather the troops, they harness the horses to the chariots, and soon Pharoah and his army are galloping across the wilderness to round up the Israelites and bring them back to work.
With the coffin of Joseph in tow, the Israelites arrive at the Sea of Reeds just as Pharoah and his minions are catching up with them. Terrified and furious, they turn to Moses and say, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you had to bring us to the wilderness to die? Didn’t we tell you already that it would be better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?”
Moses replies: “Don’t be afraid. Chill out and behold G!d’s salvation.”
An angel of G!d had been going ahead of the Israelites in a pillar of cloud from the time they left Egypt. That angel now moves from being in front of the Israelites to being behind them so that the pillar of cloud is between the Israelites and the approaching Egyptian army. The Egyptians cannot get near the Israelites because of the cloud. And this goes on all night.
In the morning, Moses lifts his staff just as G!d had told him to do. The waters part and the Israelites walk on dry land between two walls of water, and when they get to the other side, the Egyptians start pursuing them, but the angel throws the Egyptians and their horses into a panic and the Egyptians manage to lock the wheels on their own chariots. The walls of water flow back to where they belong, and the Egyptians and their horses drown in the sea.
Now the Israelites are ecstatic, and suddenly they believe in G!d AND in Moses. So Moses and the Israelites celebrate by singing Shir HaYam, the Song of the Sea. And then the Torah says that Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron and Moses takes a timbrel in her hand, and all the women go out with Miriam and they dance and sing.
And who was the audience for this ultimate blow-out of a celebration? The angels! These angels were so moved by the Israelite celebration that the joined in singing Shir HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Now when the Israelites sang Shir Hayam, that seemed to be fine with G!d. But, according to the Yalkut Shimoni, when the angels began to sing, G!d admonished the angels in very stern terms, saying, “The work of My hands are drowning in the sea and you are going to sing a song in My presence!”
To honor these seemingly opposite divine sentiments, we recite the Song of the Sea every single day during our morning prayers, but some of us recite at least part of the song b’lachash, with muted voice. And on the last six days of Pesach (Passover), which includes the anniversary of the crossing of the sea, we do not recite the full hallel (psalms of praise) as we normally do on chag (holy festival day). Instead, we curtail our joy by reciting the shorter hatzi hallel.
Just as this week’s Torah portion contains Shir HaYam, the Song of the Sea, the haftarah contains Shir Devorah, the Song of Deborah. Soon after the Israelites completed forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they entered the promised land, and under the leadership of Joshua, they began to conquer the land. Somewhere along the line, there was a battle between the Israelites and a Canannite army led by a General named Sisera.
At the time, Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess and a leader in Israel. Deborah summons Barak, son of Abinoam, an Israelite general and she tells Barak that G!d is commanding the people to take up arms against Sisera’s army. Barak says to Deborah, “I’ll go if you go with me, but if you don’t go with me, I won’t go.” So Deborah says to Barak, “if you want me to go with you into battle, that’s fine, but if I go, there will be no glory for you Barak, because G!d will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.”
Deborah’s statement turns out to be prophetic. Barak and Deborah lead the Israelite army into battle. The Israelites prevail and as the Canaanite army is being defeated, its General, Sisera, goes into town and takes refuge with Yael, the wife of Hever, a Kenite.
Yael invites Sisera into her tent. Sisera says he is thirsty and asks for water. Yael gives him milk to drink. Sisera is tired and she gets him a blanket and soon he falls asleep.
While Sisera is sleeping, Yael removes a tent pin from the underpinnings of her tent, and using a mallot, she hammers the tent pin through Sisera’s temple and into the ground.
A while later, Barak appears looking for Sisera. Yael goes out to meet Barak and she says to him, “Come here. I want to show you the man you are looking for.” Yael brings Barak to her tent and shows him Sisera who is in an eternal sleep fastened to a tent pin.
With Sisera out of the picture, the Israelites do away with the Canaanite King Jabin, they finish off his army and all is well with the Israelites, at least for the moment, and the haftarah concludes with Shir Devorah, the Song of Deborah.
Both Shir Devorah and Shir HaYam speak of G!d’s glory and recount G!d’s judgment on the enemies of Israel. This theme of judgment is a good introduction to Tu B’Shvat, which we will celebrate this coming week, because Tu B’shvat is not only the new year of the trees, but according to the Talmud, it is also the day of judgment for the trees.
My grandmother Kate Oliner taught me to care for trees and plants. Every Friday when I was a young girl, I would go to her home after school. We would go out into the yard, we would put out seed for the birds and fill the birdbath with water. We would prune and trim the trees and plants and then we would water them. After watering, we would go inside and complete the preparations for Shabbat.
My grandmother immigrated to the United States from Austro-Hungary when she was eight years old. Her mother was not well so the family had a nanny to help with the children, and it was the nanny who registered my grandmother for school shortly after she arrived in America.
When my grandmother’s nanny explained to a school official in Hartford, Connecticut that my Grandmother’s name was Gitscha, from the Yiddish “git” meaning good or goodness, the school official turned to the nanny and said, “We cannot register a child for school with that name. She needs an American name.”
At that moment, my grandmother’s nanny was looking out the window at the family horse that had carried them to the appointment. The horse’s name was Kate, and before she knew it, my Grandmother and the family horse had the same name.
When Grandma Kate was raising her own children, her husband, my grandfather, contracted cancer and died. In order to keep the family business going, Grandma Kate went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and convinced them to issue her a truck driving license so she could make deliveries. My Grandmother, who was named after a horse, became the first woman in the State of Connecticut to be granted a license to drive a truck.
Like Miriam and Deborah, my Grandmother was an example to those around her. I wonder whether Yael, the wife of Hever, would have had the nerve to kill Sisera had Deborah not joined Barak in leading the Israelites into battle. Without the example of my own two courageous grandmothers, the other of whom perished in the Shoah, I wonder whether I would have had the courage to become a rabbi.
Like Moses who made room for the leadership of his sister Miriam, and like the Israelite General Barak who insisted on the leadership of the prophetess Deborah, our own beloved Rabbi Alan Lew, zichrono livracha (of blessed memory) and our own beloved Rabbi Micah Hyman are shining examples of profound leadership in their ongoing respect and empowerment of everyone in our congregation, old and young, male and female, straight, gay, lesbian, bi and trans.
I want to conclude with a teaching about Tzipporah, the wife of Moses. As you may have noticed, Tzipporah is conspicuously absent at the crossing of the sea, and she was also absent from the stories in Parshot Va’era and Bo where we learn about the plagues. At the beginning of next week’s Parsha, it says that Jethro takes his daughter Tzipporah and her sons and they go to meet Moses in the wilderness. And it says that Jethro was bringing Tzipporah because she had been sent home. We don’t know for sure whether Tzipporah had been sent home for her protection or for another reason, but we do know that Tzipporah seems to have missed the plagues, the crossing of the sea and the singing and dancing of Miriam and the other women.
According to the Ari HaKodesh, Rabbi Isaac Luria, Tzipporah longed to sing with the women, so on the merit of the mitzvah of circumcising her son, Tzipporah earned the z’chut, the privilege, to reincarnate as Deborah, the prophetess. Not only does Deborah get to sing a song of victory and glory to G!d, but the song is memorialized in her name. Now before you dismiss as narishkeit (nonsense) this rabbinic kabbalist teaching about reincarnation and how Tzipporah came back as Deborah, think for a moment about the fact that Jewish tradition tells us, and many of us believe, that we all stood together at Sinai.