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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey, A Wise and Understanding People, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, and Loving in Reverse.
Everybody loves music: men, women, boys, girls. But there is something about music that is decidedly female.
The first recorded song in Torah was sung on the banks of the Red Sea. The Israelites had just passed through the waters that miraculously split before them, and had just witnessed those same waters crashing down on the enemies who had pursued them through the sea with violent intentions. They were finally free of Egyptian slavery once and for all. All of the might of their former masters was swept away, sinking to the bottom of the sea, or floating as flotsam near its surface,
At that moment, “Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and they spoke, saying, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.'” Exodus, 15:1. Yes, the men sang, a lengthy set of lyrics, with several stanzas.
But then the women decided to show men how the music thing is done. “Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam called out to them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.'”
Ah, such a vision it must have been: There on the sand, with the waves of Red Sea crashing, the adrenalin still coursing through their veins, the sounds of uplifted voices, accompanied by tambourines and timbrels, bodies swaying and twisting in dance…Rashi asks: Timbrels? Tambourines? Why would a bunch of former slaves escaping servitude be carrying those? Who escapes a burning building with their dancing shoes? And he answers as follows: The women of that generation were so certain that G-d would perform miracles for them, they took timbrels out of Egypt.
So really, the women are credited with two things: One, they alone had the unshakable faith that G-d would save them miraculously, that they prepared for celebration. Two, they alone understood that the way we celebrate is with music.
As it states in Kaballah: Exile will be transcended with song. And it states in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 11b) that it was “in the merit of the righteous women our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” Is it coincidence that it was the women who expressed their faith in the redemption by preparing for song?
Generations later, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av would become a day of Jewish celebration and arguably the most romantic day in the Jewish calendar (some might consider it to the Jewish equivalent to Valentine’s day – just without a celibate priest). And how would the day be celebrated? As the Babylonian Talmud (Ta’anit) relates: There was no better day for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av, since on this day the daughters of Israel go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards, and say: ‘Young man, consider whom you choose to be your wife’.” In other words, we celebrated one of our happiest days by watching our women dance and sing.
Not only that. The Hebrew word for “song” – including the song that Moses sang – is “shira,” which is a feminine word, as opposed to the masculine equivalent “shir”. In fact, Shira is a fairly common girl’s name. I don’t know a single guy named “Shir” (but I do know a girl named Shir).
The proof is in the pudding. The weekly Haftara – the portion of Prophets or Scriptures that is read in shul every Shabbat immediately following the Parsha – is typically chosen based upon is thematic similarity to the Parsha. Thus the selection of particular Haftara often underscores what the Talmudic rabbis saw as the theme of the parsha that preceded it.
And what is the Haftara that was selected for this week’s Parsha?
It is the story of a song by yet another female prophetess – the song of Deborah.
Deborah was the fourth judge of Israel and the wife of Lapidot. She famously rendered her judgments beneath a palm tree between Ramah in Benjamin and Bethel in the land of Ephraim. During her tenure, the people of Israel had been oppressed by Jabin, the king of Canaan, for twenty years. Stirred by Israel’s plight, she solicited the assistance of Barak, the son of Abinoam, to muster ten thousand troops from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, and to concentrate them upon Mount Tabor, while she drew Jabin’s general, Sisera, to the River Kishon. Barak refused to go unless Deborah agreed to go with him.
When news of the rebellion reached Sisera he gathered nine hundred chariots of iron and a host of soldiers. When the Israelite troops saw the enormity of Sisera’s forces, they lost courage. Deborah prophesied, however, that they – with G-d’s assistance – would defeat Sisera.
As Deborah prophesied, Sisera’s forces were completely defeated by Barak’s army. Sisera himself escaped on foot, while the remainder of its troops were hunted down. Fleeing the Israelites, Sisera came upon the tent of Yael, the wife of Hever. He asked her to hide him, and to conceal his whereabouts from any who might pass by asking for him. With that, he asked here for a drink. She gave him some milk, and he lay down to rest. While he slept, she snuck up to him and hammered a stake through his temple, ending his life. When Barak, hot in pursuit, passed by Yael’s tent, she invited him in to show him what she had done, and that the enemy general was no more.
Deborah composed a song commemorating the Israelite victory, which was forever after known as “Deborah’s Song.”
And the fact that Deborah’s Song was chosen as being thematically-similar to this week’s Parsha suggests that focus of the Parsha as well is not only on song, but the song sung by Miriam the prophetess.
As a somewhat juicy aside, the Talmud provides some additional detail to Yael’s encounter with Sisera, which is hinted in the lyrics of Deborah’s Song.
Deborah sang: “Between her legs he bent, he fell, he lay; between her legs he bent, he fell; where he bent, there he fell down dead.” From the apparently superfluous words describing the event, Rabbi Yochanan concludes that Yael, Hever’s wife, had sex with Sisera seven different times that day, for the purpose of wearing him out (talk about stamina!). This explains the repeated verbiage regarding him bending, then falling, then lying between her legs, and then ultimately dying there. See Babylonian Talmud, Nazir, 23b.
Yael is applauded for this “sexual assassination.” In fact, she is regarded as even more deserving of blessing than the Matriarchs themselves! The Talmud explains that this high regard was deserved, even though she may have enjoyed the physical pleasure, due to her initiative on behalf of the Israelites, and her willingness to sacrifice her purity for the sake of weakening their mortal enemy. In the Talmud’s words, Deborah’s praise of Yael teaches us that “a transgression committed for the sake of Heaven is equivalent to a mitzvah that is not performed for the sake of Heaven; and a person should always take the opportunity to perform a mitzvah – even when it is not for the sake of Heaven – for it will eventually be performed for the sake of Heaven.