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 Eternal, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15.20-21)
These are the last verses of the Song of Miriam, as the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land. The song is also called the Song of the Sea, and it begins with Moses as he leads all the Israelites in this song of praise to God. This Friday morning at our Service for the Conclusion of Passover, our cantor, Emma Goldin Lutz, will chant this song for us. I am grateful for every opportunity I have each year to either chant this song myself, or hear someone with as beautiful a voice as Emma’s chant it. I hope you will give yourselves that opportunity as well this Friday at 10:30AM. The text of Mi Chamocha, Who is like You, O God, that we know from all our evening and morning services, comes from this song.
There is a poignant irony, and for many, a bitter one as well, in this Song of Miriam. The irony is known to us by the phrase Kol Ishah Ervah. It is Talmudic shorthand for the concept that if a man hears the voice of a woman (kol ishah) raised in song, it is tantamount to his committing sexual impropriety, ervah literally meaning nakedness. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron and Moses, would have blanched at such a law – a law written over a millennium after she led the women in song. This is the law that has driven, at least in part, the opposition to Women of the Wall, who have sought for 25 years now to hold morning services together at the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Read a fresh look at this Talmudic prohibition by Professor Aharon Amit, a scholar of the history of the Talmud at Bar Ilan University.
This past Sunday, on the second day of Passover, thousands of people flocked to the Kotel for the traditional Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. On the Festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, those men who are descended from priestly families come to the Kotel, stand in the men’s section, and raise their hands and voices to pronounce the blessing upon the people. When they raise their hands, their fingers are separated into 3 groups to form the letter shin, for Shaddai, one of the divine appellations. They also cover their heads with a tallit. For his portrayal of the character Spock on “Star Trek,” the late great actor Leonard Nimoy reached back into his experience as a child in synagogue, and brought this hand formation to accompany his own “Vulcan Salute.”
But this particular Sunday was a bit different in Jerusalem. In a move by Women of the Wall, those women who traced their ancestry back to priestly families, planned to raise their hands and cover their heads, as they too raised their voices to pronounce the Birkat Kohanim from the women’s section of the Kotel in a Birkat Kohanot. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, prohibited the women to raise their hands and voices, and the Kotel police cordoned off the women into a holding area, so they would not be seen or heard by other worshipers. Funding for the effort mounted by WOW for the Birkat Kohanot was provided by Leonard Nimoy’s estate. Read a news report of this incident.
If Miriam the prophetess had suddenly appeared at the Western Wall, I wonder what Rabbi Rabinowitz would have done. I suppose we’ll never know. What we do know is that those of us who are committed to equality for women in Jewish life, no matter where we live, will never relent in this ongoing movement.
Come to services this Friday and raise your voices with us.
Of four special Shabbatot leading up to our celebration of Pesach, this coming Shabbat is the third. It is called Shabbat Parah, and is built around a ritual whose internal meaning seems quite remote for us. The “Ritual of the Red Heifer,” the parah adumah, is an extra reading in traditional practice, taken from the Book of Numbers, 19.1-22. If a person has come into contact with a dead body, he/she is believed to become contaminated. According to this ritual, a red heifer is slaughtered, its body and blood are burned in a fire with specific woods and plants, and then its ashes are mixed with water into a paste that is sprinkled on those who have been contaminated, thus purifying them. The Jewish Publication Society translates this as the “water of lustration.”
Okay, pretty gory, I admit; a ritual from a distant time, and puzzling in its real intent. The ancient world was filled with fears and rituals regarding purity and contamination, and how to regain the one, if exposed to and tainted by the other.
Certainly in the modern world we have learned a number of lessons about hygiene and physical cleanliness. One of the most elementary principles of cooking, for instance, is that when you prepare raw poultry to be cooked, before you touch anything else, wash your hands (!), and any other utensils that came into contact with the raw poultry. Otherwise, we’re almost begging for cross-contamination, and the potential for salmonella and all kinds of other horrors.
So we understand the principle of physical contamination. But there seemed to be an even deeper fear here in the case of the Red Heifer. Here, the cross between purity and contamination seemed to represent the more overwhelming fear of death, and crossing over that line, from which, of course, there was no return.
In our own time, we are familiar with various rituals which act out our need to make this separation between life and death. You may have noticed, for instance, that it’s rather tough to dispose of all the excess food from a house of shiva. While it’s okay to eat food within a house of shiva that is served to visitors, some people fear that it’s bad luck to take food out of a house of shiva – as though we’d be bringing the “taint of death” along with us. (I often advise that a good way to work around this bugaboo is to bring uneaten food to a local soup kitchen or to a particular individual who could particularly benefit from it.) Likewise, there is a custom that upon leaving a cemetery we wash our hands, as if to wash off the taint of death.
In these weeks leading up to Passover, we experience the rebirth of spring, which we celebrate on Passover. Passover itself is a festival rooted in the spring barley harvest. The month of Nisan itself was originally called “Aviv,” the “spring month.” We leave the deadness and cold of winter behind, as our spirits are buoyed by the rebirth of nature all around us. In addition, the historic overlay of the festival reminds us of our redemption from death in the drama surrounding our exodus from Egypt.
So in the coming weeks, I hope we will take advantage of these special Shabbatot, which can help to focus our attention on the multi-layered significance of the Passover festival, and in so doing, heighten our attention to the gifts of life and freedom with which we have been blessed.