What a week for us to be celebrating Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song! The name of the Shabbat derives from our reading of The Song of the Sea, in Chapter 15 of Exodus. Moses begins the song by leading the Children of Israel in praise as they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land. But the song ends with Miriam, who specifically leads the women in song, as she takes up her timbrel and sings. Particularly because of this, the song is also known as The Song of Miriam. Miriam the prophetess of Israel raises her voice in praise and in leadership. The voice of a woman is thus elevated and revered.
Unfortunately, there are many who have attempted to silence the voices of women through the ages. I’ve written on previous occasions about the way in which this has played itself out at the Western Wall for almost three decades now. On January 11, the Israeli Supreme Court challenged the ultra-Orthodox authority of the Wall, bringing women one step closer to establishing full rights to hold prayer services, wear talitot, and read the Torah at the Women’s Section of Western Wall.
This week, however, we witnessed the voice of a woman being silenced in a different, yet all too similar, context. On Monday evening, Senator Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans publicly silenced the voice of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she rose to bring the voice of another woman to the floor, as the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jeffrey Sessions for the office of US Attorney General ensued. That woman was the late Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter some 30 years ago, testifying as to manifestations of racial bigotry implicit in the actions and statements of Mr. Sessions. This was during the confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, for which he was ultimately voted down. This time, Senator McConnell invoked a little-known rule that is virtually never used, to silence the voice of Senator Warren, who was unceremoniously told to sit down and be quiet by Montana Senator Steven Daines, who was presiding over the Senate at that moment.
For the moment, I will leave aside the content of Coretta Scott King’s letter. While it is still relevant, the fact is that the issue is now moot, in light of the Senate’s confirmation of Mr. Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. What I will react to, however, is the appalling behavior of Senators McConnell and Daines, who, for all intents and purposes, told a woman senator on the Senate floor to sit down and shut up. There was little doubt in my mind that the ultimate effect of the ruling was driven by an undercurrent of misogyny. Oh yes, partisan politics came into play as well. But the optics of a woman on the floor of the Senate challenging the majority, and ultimately, challenging the President, being silenced in the middle of her statement and told to sit down, I believe, spoke louder than any statement could. Subsequent to this outrage, no fewer than four of Senator Warren’s male colleagues stood up and read Coretta Scott King’s letter.
The voice of a woman, as it channeled the voice of another woman. . . two women, strong and resolute, standing up to power. . . I believe that both Senators McConnell and Daines understood the power of these women’s voices, and that is precisely why they resorted to this cowardly tactic to silence them. But these women will not be silenced. Neither will women all across America, who understand and embrace the values of fairness and equality; of justice; and respect for human dignity.
Senator McConnell offered this by way of explaining his actions: “(Senator Warren) was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted.” Yes, Mr. McConnell, she persisted. This morning Sec’y Hillary Clinton tweeted: “She persisted. So must we all.”
Thank you, Senator McConnell, for our new battle cry. No, we will not sit down and shut up. We will stand up, and continue to raise our voices!
As always, I prefer to use these blasts during July to bring you thoughts and experiences from Israel. I have one more observation to share with you from my last day in Israel for this summer. But, it will have to wait until next week. It is impossible for me to let this particular moment go by without remarking upon the extraordinary events in Philadelphia last night, as, for the first time in history, a major party nominated a woman as its candidate for President of the United States. And wouldn’t you know, our Torah portion for this week is practically screaming to me, “Darsheini!” – “Comment upon me!” And so I will, for this singular moment in history.
Within Parashat Pinchas is the episode of the daughters of Tzelophechad ben Hepher, of the tribe of Menasseh, who died in the Wilderness. In preparation for life in Eretz Yisrael, Moses reviews the laws of the Torah for the Children of Israel, as they stood together on the Steppes of Moab. One of these was the law of inheritance. When a man dies, his property goes to his sons. But if he has no sons, his property should pass to the husbands of his daughters. If they hailed from a different tribe, then the land would pass to their ancestral tribe. But the daughters of Tzelophechad would not sit still for such a law. “The daughters of Tzelophechad. . . came forward. . . They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. . . and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!’” (Numbers 27.1-4) It would seem that Moses could not find anything objectionable in their claim. So “Moses brought their case before the Eternal. And the Eternal said to Moses, ‘The plea of Tzelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.’” (Numbers 27.5-6)
The story of Tzelophechad’s daughters is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is a demonstration of women asserting what they considered to be their moral and inherent rights, even in opposition to the law of the Torah. The modern feminist movement takes pride! But also, within the context of Torah law, it is something of a mini-demonstration of the flexibility of the law, to accommodate changes that must come about as the result of expanded thinking and practice. Things change – they must. Societies cannot live in their own time with the mores of former times that are no longer appropriate. The daughters of Tzelophechad were bold enough to suggest a new understanding of the law, informed by their own ethical sensibilities, and the changes that they knew had to be brought about. Thus they stand as role models for all of us.
And now, back to events of last night. It is no secret that I have always been an admirer of Secretary Clinton’s. But the significance of this nomination transcends personalities and party affiliations. It is an historic moment. There have been many contexts in which various groups of people have elected female leadership for the first time, the clergy, of course, the one I know most intimately. But it holds true for women across the board. Yes, some glass breaks easily. Not so when it’s on the ceiling. And while of course the shattering of the “glass ceiling” has been a goal, I assure you that the fundamental aspirations of women have not been born out of having to break that ceiling. Rather, they have been the pursuit of learning, serving, achieving and accomplishing, in whatever fields our interests have taken us.
A moment of personal reflection, if I may. When I was little girl, there were no women rabbis. There were no women cantors. There were only a precious few women lay leaders. It had not even occurred to me that such a thing was possible. And in the particular synagogue my family belonged to, I couldn’t even be down there among the men, wearing a tallit, reading from the Torah, pursuing knowledge of the tradition I loved. But one of the greatest accomplishments of our movement, and of my small part in it, is that no little girl now at Union Temple would ever even have such a thought, nor would any little boy. And there are almost a thousand of my female colleagues around the world who can say the very same thing. It may seem like a simple thing to say now. I assure you that arriving at this point was not, and is still not, a simple thing.
That is why I sat in front of the television last night, crying, and cheering, and listening intently. I cannot adequately express the gratitude that I feel at this accomplishment. And while I will reserve comment at this particular time about the months of campaigning ahead, and on my beliefs regarding what the outcome should be, nevertheless I will not reserve my joy and relief that this glass ceiling finally has been shattered. Congratulations to Secretary Clinton, and to all women everywhere for whom, in my own vocabulary, this moment was sacred.
Within our Torah portion this week is a remarkable exchange between Moses and God. We remember that Moses sends twelve scouts, one from each of the tribes, to scout out the Land of Israel. The scouts return with fruits of the Land, but ten of them bring reports of doom and gloom: “It is a land that devours its inhabitants. . . There were giants in the land, and we were as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in theirs.” (Numbers 13.32-33) But the other two, Joshua and Caleb, dissent: “The Land is an exceedingly good land; a land filled with milk and honey. . . Let us by all means go up, for we will surely conquer it.” (Numbers 13.27, 30) Unfortunately the crowd sides with the naysayers.
At this God becomes exasperated with the Children of Israel. Virtually since they left Egypt they have whined and complained, and rebelled against the divinely appointed leadership of Moses. Even after the marvels and miracles, they have little faith in God’s power. God is ready to zap them into oblivion. But Moses intervenes. Ever the loyal buffer, Moses tries to mollify the Almighty. And he does it with a little “psychology,” if you will. To paraphrase: “Almighty, You went to all this trouble to free these people from the bondage of Egypt, and deliver them into the Land. And now you’re going to mess it all up? How would it look, especially to the Egyptians? Do You want them to think You’re a phony, or a turncoat, or that You don’t actually have the power that You claim to have? What will THEY say?!”
Many of us generally try not to fall into the trap of worrying about “what THEY will say,” whoever “THEY” happen to be at any given moment. If we second-guess our every action, our every word, our every decision in life based on what THEY will say, we risk paralyzing ourselves in the fear that nothing will ever be good enough.
On the other hand, there just might be some usefulness, on occasion, for us indeed to worry about what THEY will say. We do not live in isolation from one another. Our words and actions, even our appearance at times, can and do have an effect on other people. We represent ourselves, so to speak, as we present ourselves to those around us. Often, we represent others as well: our families, our organizations, various groups with which we are associated. On certain occasions then, it might not be all that harmful if, before we speak or behave, or appear, we consider how this will be perceived in the eyes of others, and how it will reflect upon ourselves and others whom we care about.
What will THEY say? Not the end-all and be-all, but a question worthy of consideration.
We all know the story. Moses comes down from the mountain with the Tablets of the Law. But as he approaches the ground he hears the raucousness and sees the revelry. In a fit of anger he hurls the tablets to the ground and smashes them upon the Israelites. The Israelites had become disillusioned with Moses, and he in turn becomes disillusioned with them. They have given up on each other.
This week I am in Jerusalem for the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Each year we meet in a different American city, but every seventh year we convene in Israel. This is our year. There are more than 300 Reform rabbis here: from the United States, Canada, and Israel, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and Australia. I will tell you more on a different occasion. For now, I particularly want to share with you the remarkable afternoon I spent today at YOZMA, the Reform congregation in the city of Modi’in, where my good friend Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon is the Rabbi. In addition to Rabbi Shiryon, Rabbi Miri Gold from Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer, also a good friend of mine, and also Student Rabbi Yael Karrie from Kibbutz Nahal Oz in Sha’ar Hanegev, where Steve and I will be spending Shabbat, led the discussion. The discussion focused on the efforts of these remarkable women and their congregants to effect partnerships with Arab and Christian Israelis. We sat listening to several groups of women who get together regularly to form partnerships of mutual support and friendship. They made it clear: all they want to do is live together in peace as human beings. In addition, the group in particular from Sha’ar Hanegev includes both men and women. As we sat and listened to these lovely people, it became clear that except for the obvious ethnic differences, they are the same as us; the same as anyone; they are ordinary people, with families and aspirations, who simply want to live in security and peace, and in friendship with their neighbors, who share this land with them.
The utopian dream that motivated the early Zionists has been shattered by war and occupation. The tablets have been smashed, and disillusionment has set in almost universally. But remember the rest of the story in our Sidra. After Moses has broken the tablets, God commands him to carve two new ones, and to bring them back up to Mount Sinai to be re-inscribed. It is understandable that many people, both Israelis and those around the world, may feel great anger and frustration at the ongoing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians, and all the manifold complications of that conflict. Nevertheless, today I saw living proof that the disappointment of unattainable perfection does not have to condemn us to endless anger and hate-mongering. We can re-carve the tablets and rewrite the narrative. My colleagues and I spent this afternoon with people in Israel who are determined not to sacrifice their lives to disillusionment and hopelessness. While global problems remain, they have taken their personal lives and their own emotional wellbeing into their own hands, by extending their hands to those different from themselves in some ways, and in some ways, exactly the same. There are some in this world who would choose to cast each other out as enemies. These women and men have chosen instead to embrace one another as friends. Lu yihi – may it be.
Last week our sidra reviewed the birth and early life of Moses, and the first revelation of God through the burning bush on Mount Horeb. Three names are used for the Divine Presence: אלהים – Elohim – God; יהוה – YHVH – pronounced euphemistically as Adonai, and translated euphemistically as “The Lord,” or in more gender neutral terms, “The Eternal;” and אהיה – Ehyeh, which is actually the first-person future tense of the verb “to be.” Of these, it is only the third which is new, as the first two are introduced in the Book of Genesis in God’s communication with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In this first theophany, God self-identifies as אהיה אשר אהיה – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – “I will be what I will be.”
Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . . (Deuteronomy 27.19)
In our sidra this week, among the litany of laws and statutes that Moses rehearses for the Israelites as they stand at the Jordan River is the admonition concerning fair treatment of the ger – the stranger. No fewer than 36 times in our Torah are we similarly admonished. You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23.9). When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you and your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19.33-34)
Dr. Fritz Bamberger, z”l, comments on this verse from Leviticus in the Plaut Commentary (p.803): “The ger, foreigner, who is resident in the land of Israel, must not only be protected against molestation but be shown positive love. . . Nowhere in ancient literature is there the deep concern with the feelings of the stranger that the Torah imposes on the entire community . . . .”
It is not my intent within the confines of this short davar to present a comprehensive commentary on the immigration quagmire that we can’t seem to solve in the United States. It is merely a brief expression of disappointment and dejection over the tenor of political rhetoric in our country as it has developed in recent weeks, particular with respect (or disrespect, as it were) to those people in our country who were not born within our borders. It is inflammatory, small minded, and mean spirited.
Just a recollection, if I may share it, now that we are approaching the Days of Awe. One of the sins listed in the litany as it is written in Gates of Repentance is xenophobia – fear of anything foreign. I remember that our High Holy Day guest rabbi at Union Temple for many years, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, z”l, never wanted to read this passage. Though his English was highly sophisticated, as we remember, somehow his German background kicked in with this particular word, xenophobia, and he claimed it was too hard for him to pronounce. So I read that passage. And I have to admit that it was always a source of some amusement for me, especially given the extraordinary intellect of the man. I won’t read anything more into Rabbi Schindler’s aversion to reading that passage, especially since he’s not here for me to ask him. Nevertheless, we do remember that he came to this country at the age of 12 from his native Munich, Germany, seeking refuge from the Nazi regime. During World War II, he joined the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division in the Alpine Ski Patrol in Europe, and later served in an artillery unit. He was severely wounded while fighting in Italy. But he recovered, and ultimately was awarded three combat ribbons for bravery, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star. All his subsequent rabbinic accomplishments notwithstanding, here was someone who could have been viewed as nothing more than a “foreigner” in the United States, yet was willing to sacrifice his very life for his new country, and almost did.
Please allow me this brief statement of the obvious. Our country is a country of immigrants: people who have come here from countries far and wide seeking refuge from political and economic oppression, religious and racial discrimination and persecution, and simply aspiring to a better life for themselves and their families. We are their descendants. Every one of the public figures now speaking about immigrants in such degrading and hostile ways is a descendant of immigrants – foreigners. Ultimately it is up to us, I would assume, to let them know that their speech is disgraceful and unacceptable in the America that our ancestors, and even some of us, have worked so hard to build.