This morning, I want to tell you a story. It’s actually a story about THE story, the ultimate story in Jewish history. The story which, owing to a convergence of events on today’s calendar, is also THE portion of Jewish scripture that is being read TODAY in temples and synagogues all around the world.
You all know the story, I think. The Israelites fleeing Egypt are now trapped between the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army coming up fast from behind. God instructs Moses to hold out his hand over the waters, the sea miraculously parts, and the jubilant Israelites cross to freedom on the dry river bed.
Moses, the man who didn’t even want this job because, as he told God, he was “slow of speech,” now is inspired to sing of the peoples’ redemption in a magnificent, extended and richly detailed poem of praise to God known as the “Song of the Sea.”
Or so we are told.
But following this long poem attributed to Moses, the book of Exodus gives us this:
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously. Horse and driver have God hurled into the sea.” (Ex. 15:20-21)
Without waiting for orders or encouragement, Miriam and the women take it upon themselves to dance right into the middle of the sea-bed – in full faith and trust in God that they will be redeemed.
As it happens, this short two-line song may well be the original – or at least the most ancient – telling of the redemption of the Israelite nation. It may just be that this simple, short and beautiful first description of what the women said and did was later overshadowed by the extended and more famous poem attributed to Moses – who, after all, is the hero of the Exodus story as it has been handed down to us.
Some scholars even believe that the entire “song of the sea” should actually be attributed to Miriam. After all, in the ancient world, it was the role of the women to compose and perform songs of triumph to greet victorious troops as they returned from battle. One ancient manuscript actually calls this “The Song of Miriam.” But in the end, Moses is given the credit.
We are fortunate that the remnants of the original story remain in the final redaction of THE story. Because they teach us how powerful these women were when their faith in God was strong, and their trust in one another was, perhaps, even stronger. Miriam could not have pulled this off alone. It took all the women, singing and dancing across the dry river bed to freedom, who made such an impact that their simple act of faith remains with us more than three-thousand years later.
What happened to Miriam’s song and the story of the women are part and parcel of the patriarchal narrative of life – not just the life of the Ancient Near East but the life we live today. The movement that we call the Women’s March began in 2017 as a message to the world that the women of America would not step back. We would not see our accomplishments neglected or belittled. We would not politely wait our turn to step up into positions of leadership and power – any more than the Israelite women waited for somebody else to tell them to march forward.
The speed at which this is now happening at all levels of public life has been astonishing. It literally takes my breath away. I found my place in the feminist movement back in the 70’s, raised by a father who taught me I could do anything and be anything I wanted to be – and inspired by his mother, my Grandmom Freda, who took no nonsense from anyone, and by her mother, my Bubbie Rose, who arrived at these shores from Poland, all alone, at the age of 16, with nothing but a letter of introduction and enough talent in the kitchen and the sewing room to earn passage for the rest of her family.
The young women I am fortunate enough to teach and to pastor take for granted the broad horizons open to them. Which is exactly what my generation of feminists fought for.
The wonderful Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz (who’s married to some politician in Ohio) wrote this week of what she learned watching her own mother’s regret that she had lived by the limitations that others had put on her. Connie wrote:
“We women have always had our ambition – and by ambition, I mean wanting to do anything that runs contrary to the relentless and time-honored tradition of keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.”
“Keeping us in the shadow of our own lives.” I love that phrase. I think it captures perfectly our struggle against those patriarchal traditions. The women of my and Connie’s generation had a long learning curve about stepping out of the shadows of our own lives. We had to learn, as Connie wrote, that our restlessness is an asset and a strength – and not, as we may have been taught, a sign of impolite selfishness.
And we are overjoyed to see how easily and gracefully the women who are our daughters’ ages – and even our granddaughters’ ages – have followed their (your) restlessness, stepping into the light and, like Miriam and the women, singing and dancing their (your) way to the front.
I was so lucky and blessed to be raised by inspiring and empowering women, who did not wait for someone else to give them permission to live their lives. That gift led me to what are still considered “non-traditional” careers for women: broadcast journalism, sports journalism, sports marketing. And now my true calling as a rabbi – a teacher, a preacher and a pastor for the past twenty years.
We women rabbis are still very much in the minority, even in Reform Judaism, which is the most inclusive and progressive stream of Judaism. But we are making our mark in congregations large and small, where we are a living embodiment of the joy of stepping out of the shadows of our own lives — and of other peoples’ pre-conceived notions of who and what a rabbi is supposed to be.
The women gathered here today – and in towns and cities across the country – come from all different ethnicities, faith traditions, and families of origin. But we march together because, like Miriam and the women, we understand we are stronger together. We are bolder together. And God knows, we are louder together. To those who would try to weaken us by driving wedges between us – I say now, you will not win. We see what you’re trying to do. We know your game plan. And we always will be three moves ahead of you.
We have a Hebrew phrase that we use at times such as these – times such as Miriam and the women faced – when we have rid ourselves of servitude but face unknown challenges in the path ahead. We say:
Chazak! Chazak! V’nitchazek!
Be Strong! Be Strong! And we will be encouraged.
The first part is in the singular: You be strong! And you! And you!
The second part is in the plural. Every time you or you or you shows how wonderful you are, you inspire the rest of us to stand strong together.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), commentary to Parashat B’shalach, Exodus 15:1-21), p. 387-88.