Parshas Beshalach (5771)
This week's action-packed Torah portion starts off with the Jewish people being surrounded on all sides - the mountains and the desert on their right and left, the Reed Sea in front of them, and the entire Egyptian army right behind them.
In what is probably the most amazing miracle of all time, G-d splits the Sea, and the Jews walk across the dry seabed to safety on the other side. The Egyptians, who cannot believe their eyes (does anybody have a camera?) from what they are seeing, should really have turned back right then and there. But something (can you say G-d?) makes them follow the Jews into the Sea, and right then ….. BOOM!! …. the whole seawall comes crashing down upon them and they all die unhappily ever after.
The Jewish men, led by Moses, are incredibly moved by this fantastic miracle that G-d has wrought for them, and are inspired to sing a song to Him ..... the Song of the Sea which is recorded in Exodus 15:1-19.
The Torah also records what the women did, led by Moses' sister Miriam:
"Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. Miriam spoke up to them, "Sing to G-d for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea." (ibid 15:20-21)
Drums?! From where on earth did the women get drums? They were slaves running out of Egypt into the middle of the desert – so how could they possibly get a hold of a band to accompany their song? What else did they have - a full smorgasbord with a Viennese table?
Rashi, the preeminent Bible commentator, quotes the Midrash which tells us the most amazing thing: The Jewish women were so confident that G-d would perform miracles and save them from their Egyptian captors, that they actually brought drums with them as they were packing up to leave Egypt!!!!
How do you like that? The Jewish men were busy grabbing all the ashtrays and towels they could find ..... and the women were packing drums! What faith Miriam and the rest of the Jewish women showed during a time of crisis when no one could have known what would be the outcome of the great escape from Egypt! The women just knew that G-d would come through for them, and they took along musical instruments for just such an occasion! Amazing!
THE "REDEEMING" QUALITIES OF THE JEWISH WOMAN
The truth is that this is but one example of the Jewish woman's incredible moral strength and faith in times of crisis when all hope is seemingly lost, and all the men are in despair. In fact, this picture of women possessing the strength and determination necessary to get the Jewish people through hard times - the key ingredient for Jewish survival - is a constant theme throughout the Torah and the Rabbinic commentaries to the Torah.
When the Jewish men were overtaken by despair during the period of servitude in Egypt, it was their wives who kept hope of the redemption alive. When the Jewish men had given up hope that Moses would ever appear on Mount Sinai, they looked to replace him with another icon - the Golden Calf. Not so the women, say the commentaries, who never despaired and refused to worship with their husbands. When the Jewish men heard the evil report of the Spies, who claimed that the Land of Israel was impossible to conquer, their determination collapsed and they began to cry. The women held strong to their faith, however, and as a result, say the Rabbis, they were not included in the decree sentencing the entire generation of the exodus to die in the desert.
It is this courage and moral strength in times of crisis and despair exemplified by the Jewish women in our history that prompted the Sages to claim: "In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, were the Jews redeemed from Egypt." It was because of women like Miriam and all those who followed her out of Egypt with drum in hand - never once doubting that although things look grim on the surface, help and salvation is never too far away - that we were able to survive the Egyptian persecution and ultimately be redeemed.
Where - you might ask - do these "redeeming" qualities of Jewish women come from? What is it about the Jewish woman that gives her the strength, faith and vision to see future redemption amidst crisis and despair?
ALL ABOUT EVE
Our Jewish tradition teaches that the source for the special qualities that women have that enable them to carry the rest of us during periods of crisis, can be traced back to the very creation of woman - way back in the Garden of Eden.
In the beginning, there were Adam and Eve, just hanging out in the Garden. But how did they get there? The Torah tells us how G-d fashioned Adam from the earth (the name Adam comes from the Hebrew word adamah, which means "earth") and then He blew into man's nostrils and he came alive. G-d saw that it was not good that man was alone, so He put Adam to sleep and took one of his "spare ribs" and fashioned woman from it. This was how Eve, the very first woman, was created.
The Midrash takes note of the fact that Man was created from the dust of the earth, while Woman was created from bone. Bone is stronger than earth; an earthenware vessel when it falls breaks into many pieces; a vessel of bone remains firm and intact. Woman, concludes the Midrash, is blessed with greater emotional inner strength.
This ancient Midrash sounds remarkably similar to an observation made in the twentieth century by Ashley Montagu, the respected American anthropologist and social biologist, who wrote:
"Though women are more emotional than men, men are emotionally weaker than women; that is, men break more easily under emotional strain than women do. Women bend more easily, and are more resilient."
But it goes much further than that. When the Torah describes how G-d took the rib from Adam, and fashioned it into a woman, it uses the Hebrew word vayiven, which is related to the word for intuition and profound understanding. The Talmud teaches, based on this verse, that women were endowed with greater insight and intuitive intelligence than men.
Maybe it is because Eve was created from the rib - which is internal - that she is able to see deeper than the surface, beyond the immediate dreary present to a far brighter future. Adam, on the other hand, was created from something external - the earth - so that his vision is limited to the present, grim and despairing as it may sometimes be.
It takes the courage and faith of a Jewish woman to be able to pack along a drum set on the way out of Egypt, even as her husband is concerned with the family's immediate survival. And it takes the vision of the Jewish woman to keep her husband and children from despairing in the most difficult times of crisis, intuiting the redemption that is just over the horizon.
LADIES, THE FUTURE IS IN YOUR HANDS
On the verse, “Zachar chasdo ve'emunaso l'veis yisrael - He recalled His kindness and faithful pledge to the House of Israel" (Psalms 98:3), which is recited every Friday night during the Kabbolas Shabbos (“Welcoming the Sabbath”) service at the synagogue, the Midrash comments:
"In the merit of the kindness and faith of the righteous Jewish women – the House of Israel - of each generation, G-d will redeem the entire generation."
In other words, it is in the merit of the Jewish women of each generation that we continue to survive as a nation. And it is through the righteous Jewish women that we will one day merit the ultimate redemption and the coming of the Messiah.
Today, more than ever, we need the strength and courage of our Jewish women to bring us redemption. Maybe we're not enslaved in Egypt or experiencing the Inquisition, and no Cossack is trying to run us down with his horse, but we are in a different type of exile - a spiritual exile. I know that sounds so cliché - but it is the unfortunate reality. We are losing the majority of our Jewish brethren to apathy and ignorance, and the future looks quite bleak for the continued survival of our nation.
The Jewish soul inside each and every one of us has to be reawakened. We need to feel good about who we are as Jews. We need to strengthen our Jewish identities. And the time is now. Before it's too late, G-d forbid. So that the words of the Midrash quoted above are especially appropriate and crucial in our times - it is the moral strength and incredible faith of our Jewish women that has the power to "redeem" all of us from this spiritual exile.
The Jewish woman is the main potential driving force of spiritual growth in any Jewish home. (How do I know that? My wife told me!) She is the one who can make things happen. That's no secret - it's the unique power that was created in the very first woman in history and is part of every woman's spiritual makeup.
The future of the Jewish nation and our ultimate redemption is entirely in the hands of each and every Jewish woman. Each woman has the power to make "things spiritual" happen around her. And if she won't make it happen, nobody will make it happen. What an incredible power and what an awesome responsibility!
TWO GREAT BOOKS ABOUT JEWISH WOMEN
I would like to recommend two great books about Jewish women, written by Jewish women. The first book is called Jewish Women Speak About Jewish Matters (Targum Press). It is a wonderful collection of short essays about themes relating to Jewish women, written by some of the greatest Jewish women authors, teachers and personalities in the world today.
The second book is called To Vanquish the Dragon by Pearl Beinisch (Feldheim Publishers). It is the true story of courageous young Bais Yaakov girls and their experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, and the amazing strength and unbelievable faith they showed in that time of great crisis and despair. It is the most gripping and inspiring book about the Holocaust that I have ever read, and is a testimony to the unique power and faith of the Jewish woman. You will find both of these amazing books at your local Jewish bookstore. Enjoy!