Archive for the ‘Parshat Veira’ Category

This year, I had the honor and pleasure of delivering the following d’var Torah for a women’s seder hosted by the Women of Reform Judaism at Beth David Congregation of Philadelphia. I was asked to speak for about 5 minutes on the topic of women in the Exodus story. This is what I shared:

Original artwork for sale at the Reiss Gallery in Greenwood Village, Co. http://rreissgallery.com/mishory.html

Death. Water. Rebirth.

Death. Water. Rebirth.

This is the pattern we see in the famous story of the Exodus. Each is a stepping stone in the great circle of life.

First we have the Pharaoh of Egypt, a powerful yet fearful man who has grown paranoid that the population of his Hebrew slaves is becoming too great, and might one day overpower him. So, he issues a decree that all firstborn sons be killed. Death.

A loving sister named Miriam takes her baby brother and releases him to the fates of a raging river, in the hopes he will survive. Water.

He does survive. And it is Moses’s survival that will make possible the transformation of the Hebrew slaves into the Israelite people — a free people on their own land. Rebirth.

But even within this story’s mega-journey from Death, Water, to Rebirth, we also witness smaller inner-journeys that mimic this same pattern. The Exodus story begins with God deciding that enough is enough; he will no longer tolerate Pharaoh’s cruelty against his people. Through Moses, God sends 10 plagues. The plagues culminate, each more horrible than the last, until the final plague. Death to the Egyptians! But it not just death to firstborn sons. (You might have thought this. This is how it is depicted in the famous Charlton Heston movie about the Exodus.) But the movie was wrong! That is not what the texts say. The Torah says that the edict of death was for the firstborn of all the people and even of all the animals in the Egyptian kingdom.

Did you know? Pharaoh’s daughter was a first-born child. The woman who plucked Moses from the reeds and raised him as her own son, she was destined to perish in the 10th plague.

But, she did not perish. P’sikta D’rav Kahana 7:7 — a 5th century rabbinic text — tells us that Moses prayed for his adoptive mother. The text gives her the name of Bithiah. Moses’s prayer invoked a passage from Proverbs 31:18 about a “woman of valor.” According to this passage, the lamp of a woman of valor never goes out at night. P’sikta D’rav Kahana understands this to be a metaphysical reference to Pharaoh’s daughter, whose soul was not extinguished on that terrible night.

Color pencil drawing inspired by the songs of Debbie Friedman. For sale at Soulworks Studio. http://www.soulworksstudio.com/SongMandalas.en.html

Color pencil drawing inspired by the songs of Debbie Friedman. For sale at Soulworks Studio. http://www.soulworksstudio.com/SongMandalas.en.html

But, let us return to our circle.

We have Death — again — of innocents, of children. Just as Pharaoh decreed, so decrees the Hebrew god.

With the plague of death unleashed upon his empire, the exhausted Pharaoh finally relents and let’s his people go. So eager is he to see the Hebrews leave, Midrash tells us, that he leaves all of the slain first-born of his kingdom, unburied, broiling, sweltering, left to rot where they had died. He did this not out of callous indifference, but rather because he ordered the Egyptians to help the Israelites pack up their belongings and get out — lest there by any further delay in their departure.

After Death comes Water. The Israelites collect their sheep and their ox, their blankets, and their bread — which had not had not even had time to rise — and they flee for the relative safety of the desert. Eventually, they arrive on the shores of another mighty river. No longer the River Nile, they are now on the banks of the Sea of Reeds.

But, the story tells us, Pharaoh had a change of heart. He let the people go — but then he sent the Egyptian armies out after them. As well-armed chariots and soldiers were advancing upon Moses’s bedraggled bunch, the waters of the great river miraculously part, enabling the entire Hebrew people to walk through its waters. Just as the last of them has cleared the way, the waters come crashing back down, drowning every last one of Pharaoh’s men. Pharaoh is the only survivor, and he left to hear the death cries of his entire kingdom.

The Israelites break out into song, celebrating their deliverance. It is one of the most famous poems in the Bible, known as the Song of the Sea. And it is here, at this moment of Rebirth, that we see Moses’s sister Miriam again taking center stage.

Death, Water, Rebirth. Miriam has been a major actor in every step of this circle of life and redemption.

Shared on Flickr.com. If you know the artist, please email me!

Shared on Flickr.com. If you know the artist, please email me!


What I am about to tell you is a secret. It’s a secret because it isn’t told in the Torah, or in the Maxwell House hagaddah you grew up with, and is probably not found in many of the other dreadful hagaddot you have seen or read in your life. They were all written by men, for men, about men.

The Torah’s Song of the Sea begins at Exodus 15:1 and says this: “Az yashir Moshe u’bnai Israel et Hashira Ha-zot l’Adonai, v’yom’ru …” In other words: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Adonai, saying,…”  What follows is a victory poem cheering the Hebrews’ deliverance over Egypt, and hailing God as the ultimate warrior.

What the poem doesn’t tell us, but what modern-day scholars know, is that it was usually the women in a society who create the victory songs of war, not the men. The men are the ones off fighting the battle. It is the women, nervously waiting back home, who craft the melodies and the words that impassion this style of poetry. Victory songs belong to a genre of literature composed by women and used to greet victorious troops after battle.

Indeed, there is at least one ancient Jewish text we have found that gives a tantalizing hint to this historical fact. One ancient scroll titles the Song of the Sea as “Miriam’s Song.”

It was probably a mistake. I can so image in the poor schlub — the professional scribe — who may have lost his job over it.

But, maybe not. Maybe, this “mistake” was intentional after all. Maybe what this text reveals is a tantalizing, almost maddening clue that somewhere deep in our collective subconscious, in the verbal traditions of our people, we knew all along that it was Miriam — and not Moses — who led the people in song after the redemption.

Death. Water and Rebirth. It turns out that the Exodus story begin and ends with a woman. It began, and ended, with Miriam.

Image shared on Flickr by tbabchak.

This is why, today, more than 1,500 years after the Passover seder tradition evolved in Palestine and Eastern Europe, we women gather to have what we call a “women’s seder.” Because it is here, with the love of sisters, mothers, and friends, that we may relish the joy in sharing the rest of the story.

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What I love about this painting is its focus on the people who stood at Sinai -- rather than on a divine and supernatural revelation.

Today I noticed an interesting synchronicity. The Torah portion we read during the first week of the new year (Veira) is the portion that begins the three-part chronicle of the Exodus. In it, God instructs Moses to demand that Pharaoh let the people go, and the first of the 10 plagues are reined down on Egypt.

Why is this synchronicity?

Well, the Exodus is, at its heart, a story of setting forth. It’s about going out into a new life and reality that is largely unknown. It is the beginning of a new chapter — just in the way the start of the (secular) New Year is also the beginning of a new chapter.

Like many Jews, the Jewish new year of Rosh Hoshana carries more emotional weight for me than the secular New Year does. It’s when I make my resolutions and really commit myself to inner reflection.

But the secular New Year carries its own gravitas. There is a certain magic to watching the numbers flip from ’10 to ’11. Every time I fill out my checkbook, sign a form or even look at the calendar, I have a very concrete and graphic reminder that another year of my life has passed, and can’t be reclaimed again.

In some ways, this makes the secular New Year a little less ephemeral, and a little less in need of communal reinforcement, than the Jewish new year does.

For the ancient Israelites — so the story goes — their new birth was punctuated by the revelation at Sinai. Their going forth was under the very clear instruction of Torah and God itself.

But what do we have that frames our going forth, our new beginning? In our post-modern, post-Enlightenment world, Torah and halacha are interesting traditions and guideposts, but they hardly carry authoritative sway. Their only authority is the authority we choose to assign them, which really, when you think about it, isn’t authority at all. If Torah had true authority, we wouldn’t feel perfectly okay picking and choosing from it!

Given this, under what values and principles do we enter this new year? If we choose to find them in Jewish tradition (and yes, even that is a choice), from where do we pluck them?

One of my favorite poets, Rivka Miriam, offers a poignant answer to this question. An award-winning writer born in Jerusalem in 1952, Rivka is the daughter of the famous Yiddish writer Leib Rochman.

Here is what she has to say in a poem from her collection, These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam, by Toby Press.

One Day the Torah Will Leave Us To Go Forward

by Rivka Miriam

One day the Torah will leave us to go forward
and we, used to feeling that she’s like our own body
like a landscape
that even when she turns away she keeps returning
coming and going —
as if she were one of our parents, or a child emerging from our
            loins —
suddenly we won’t know whether to cease
or to chase
we won’t know if one of our organs has been taken, the lungs, for
            example, or the blood, or the heart
the hidden light, the direct light, the encompassing light
or the surrounding light
and maybe she was only a childhood garment taken off
like a shirt that a growing child changes —
and maybe it wasn’t a garment at all, but a veil, a scarf
a curtain removed
the ancient fig leaf, passed from the first to last generation
or the very memory that was born before time
and keeps moving between spirit and flesh.

So, one day, without the Torah we will remain.
And no man among us will know if he’s still alive.
And each into the other’s eye will stare in search of Sinai.


I believe what Rivka is saying is that the answer can only be found in looking to each other. Our values and guideposts must be born out of relationships, and those I-Thou moments of turning toward the Other and seeking out our common humanity.

It is not the reception of Torah at Sinai that mattered. Rather, it is the fact we were all standing there, together, to receive it, that is the glue, and the lesson, that has lasted.

Nu — What do you think?

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