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Drash on Parashat Beshalach 2021

Drash on Parashat Beshalach
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW

The Haftarah connected to this week’s parasha tells of Devorah, the only woman judge listed in the Tanach. In the Haftarah, Devorah instructs the military leader, Barak to lead the tribes of Naphtali and Zevulun in battle against the Canaanites, who were oppressing them. The Israelites win the battle, however, the Canaanite General, Sisera, flees to the Kenite settlement, and seeks shelter in Heber's tent, and is welcomed in by Heber’s wife, Yael. She brings Sisera into the tent and gives him milk to drink, which makes him sleepy. She promises to hide Sisera, and covers him with a rug. After Sisera falls asleep, Yael takes a tent peg and uses a mallet to hammer it through his head. The blow she delivered was so powerful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. Following this, the Israelites go on to kill Yavin, the king of one of the Canaanite cities. The second part of the Haftarah includes the Song of Devorah, in which she poetically describes the victory over the Canaanites.

Both Devorah and Yael portray biblical characters vastly different to many other women in the Tanach. Rabbi Sandy Zisser reminds us that the women outside of the Torah itself are much more physically powerful and in many ways are regarded as equal participants, especially in battle against their enemies. They are also seen as wise in their judgement, significantly different to their predecessors. This is supported by the notion that biblical scholars suggest that the Song of Devorah was written much later and inserted into the book, to emphasise the power and persuasiveness of women at that time.

Every Haftarah has a connection to the Torah portion it accompanies, and we learn that one such connection this week is that in the Torah portion, the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds, and in the Haftarah, the Canaanites are swept away by the Kishon River.

There is also a connection between the roles that Devorah and Yael played in the Haftarah, and the role played by Miriam at the Sea of Reeds. At the end of Shirat Hayam, the Torah tells us; “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”(Exodus 15:20).

Miriam’s description as a prophetess is the only time in the Torah that a person is specifically referred to in that manner. Neither Moses nor Aaron are specifically merited with the title. Why is this the case? Rabbi David Stav writes that Miriam is best understood as a pivotal leader in the Jewish People’s march toward salvation. After Pharaoh decreed that all male babies were to be drowned in the Nile, many men – under the leadership of Amram, the father of Miriam – separated from their wives, to avoid sentencing any future sons to an immediate death. It was at this grim moment that Miriam confronted her father, telling him that his decree was more harsh than Pharaoh’s: the Egyptian tyrant had decreed only against the male babies, while her father had sealed the fate of all unborn children. It was Miriam who then encouraged her father to re-marry Yocheved – and, by extension, all Jewish couples to re-marry, and to continue to bring children into the world.

It was Miriam who informed her father that he would have a son who would redeem the entire Jewish people. This was a prophetic vision of the birth of Moses. This prophecy had propelled all of the ensuing events, and hence why Miriam was called a prophetess. The prophecy occurred before Moses was born, when Miriam still had only one brother, Aaron, and this is why the verse quoted above only mentions him.

Like Devorah and Yael, Miriam’s story is truly remarkable. For all three of them, they could have chosen a less arduous way to deal with these challenges, perhaps even taking the easy way out. However, their determination and actions defied the norm and they showed that they were not afraid to stand up for what is right and true, despite the risks. May their heroics and foresight serve as inspiration for us, when we face challenging situations.

Shabbat Shalom.

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