Below, please find this adaptation of Rav Weinberger's drasha from this Shabbos, parshas Beshalach 5779. Rav Weinberger has reviewed this write-up and any corrections are incorporated herein. Enjoy!
Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Beshalach – Shabbos Shirah 5779
The Song of Miriam
We spoke on parshas Va’eira about the different leadership qualities of Moshe and Aharon, how Hashem expresses Himself as “The Holy One” versus the “Divine Presence,” and the different ways mothers and fathers express their love for their children. On this Shabbos of the Song at the Sea and the Song of Devorah, let us understand more deeply how women and mothers are the source of our ability to succeed in this world.
The men sang “I will sing to Hashem for He is very exalted…” (Shmos 15:1). And regarding the women’s song, the passuk says, “And Miriam called out to them, ‘Sing to Hashem for He is very exalted…’” (ibid 21). Why was it Miriam who led the women’s song?
We see that many years earlier, when she was just a child of six years old, Pharaoh decreed, “Throw every newborn son into the river” (Shmos 1:22). According to Chazal (Sota 12a; Shmos Raba 1:19), Miriam’s father Amram, the greatest sage of the generation, gave up all hope and separated from his wife, and all the other men followed suit, lest they give birth to children who would immediately be murdered. It was only little Miriam who stood up and started a movement against the despair which had overtaken the entire generation: “Father! Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s!” He brought her argument before the beis din and he and they agreed with Miriam. Only Miriam’s courage was able to overcome the despondency that had infected the leaders of the generation.
We see something similar in this week’s haftarah in which the general Barak and the rest of the men were overcome with fear of the Kena’ani army and their general Sisra. When the passuk says, “The caravans ceased, the travelers walked on crooked paths” (Shoftim 5:6), Rashi explains that this was because “the Jewish people were afraid to travel because of the enemy.” Normal life stopped because the people were paralyzed with fear.
And even when Devorah communicated the prophetic message that Hashem would deliver Kena’an into their hands, Barak was still afraid. He told her, “If you will go with me, then I will go, but if you will not go with me, I will not go” (ibid. 4:8). She agreed and thereby led the entire army to victory.
But this decisive defeat of the enemy’s will to fight came through another woman, Yael, who personally assassinated Sisra in his own tent! (ibid. 21). Devorah herself acknowledged the fact that Jewish women brought about the victory in the song she sang celebrating Hashem’s deliverance. She relates how life stopped for the Jewish people “until I, Devorah, rose up, until a mother of Israel rose up” (ibid. 5:7). Chazal tell us that the Jewish people’s victory in this war arose from the feminine side. They say the same thing about our victory on Purim, when victory also came through a Jewish woman, Esther.
How were Miriam, Devorah, Yael, and Esther able to revive the hopes of the Jewish people when no one else could? We see the power of a “mother of Israel” to inspire confidence, bravery, and strength in the people. While the men carried the physical weapons (כלי נשק), the Jewish mothers used something even more powerful than weapons, but which shares the same Hebrew root word: kisses – נשיקות. A mother has the power to speak to her children, her husband, or the entire Jewish people and tell them, “You can do it! Hashem is with you! You will succeed!”
After the salvation at the sea in this week’s parshah, the men proudly said, “I will sing to Hashem!” But where did they get the strength to sing? There is a backstory. When the passuk says, “And Miriam called out to them, ‘Sing to Hashem,’” who was she speaking to? The men? The women? Both? The word for “them” in the passuk is masculine, not feminine, which could indicate that Miriam was speaking only to the men, or, at the very least, to both men and women. According to one opinion in Chazal, Miriam was speaking not just to the women, but to Moshe and the elders.
According to this opinion, the men received the strength to sing from Miriam, the woman who, as a child, had saved the Jewish people from despair of Pharaoh’s decree! Right after the song at the sea, Moshe told us, “If you will listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d, do what is straight in His eyes, hearken to His mitzvos, and observe His laws, I will not place on you the entire sickness that I placed on Egypt” (Shmos 15:26). The passuk says “sickness,” singular, rather than sicknesses, plural. According to the seforim hakedoshim, she saved the Jewish people from the most debilitating sickness of all – despair. As a child, and again at the sea, she told her brothers and sisters, “Be alive! You can do it! Hashem is with us!”
The womb is called the “source” of life in Hebrew – מקור. And the numerical value of that word is equivalent to the word for “will” or “desire” – רצון. Jewish women and mothers build us up from womb to tomb so that we have the capacity to get out of bed and do what we need to do to connect to Hashem and build the world.
The feminine side of Shabbos empowers us in a similar way. When the Shabbos Queen arrives, we sing in Lecha Dodi, “Shake yourself off! Arise from the dust! … Awaken, awaken! For your light has arrived. Arise, my light!” Devorah too sang, “Wake up, wake up! [said] Devorah. Awake! Awake! Utter a song!” (Shoftim 5:12). On Shabbos, we are healed from that sickness of the six days of the week – heavy-heartedness, sadness, and despair, which often debilitates us even more than the swords of our enemies.
Tu BiShvat begins tomorrow night. On this day when the earliest-blooming trees awaken from the inactivity of winter in Eretz Yisroel, we eat from the seven fruits for which the land of Israel is praised, including the tamar – the date. According to the passuk, Devorah judged the people sitting under the Tomer Devorah – the date palm of Devorah (Shoftim 4:5). Why a date palm specifically? According to Chazal, the secret of the date is that “Just as the date has only one heart [pit], so too the Jewish people have only one heart for their Father in Heaven” (Sukkah 45b).
And one of our Jewish mothers, Tamar, also gave life to Dovid HaMelech and Moshiach because she did not give up hope of carrying on Yehuda’s lineage, even when he gave up. Commenting on the passuk, “The tzaddik blossoms like a Tamar, he grows like a cedar in the Lebanon” (Tehillim 92:13), Chazal say, “Just as the date palm has a beautiful appearance and all of its fruits are sweet and good, so too the son of David will be beautiful of appearance and all of his deeds will be sweet and good before Hashem” (Midrash Shochar Tov on Tehillim 92). Moshiach’s great-grandmother Tamar gave him and all of us the wherewithal to live beautiful lives.
My wife showed me a beautiful article that illustrates this perfectly. Several rebbetzins and educators were interviewed. One woman, Mrs. Miryam Swerdlov, a Chabad educator in Crown Heights, wrote the following about her parents, particularly her mother:
My parents have always been inspiration to me, as well. I was born in Russia and came to America when I was a little girl. Life was not easy for us, but I didn’t know it. My father walked with his cane his entire life, but he was never bitter. He would say in Yiddish, “Pick up your cane in your hand and start walking.” That is how we lived. We were taught, no matter what life gives you, you keep walking.
Although I have limited memories of my mother, since I was so young when she died, I do remember that she would sing constantly while working in the kitchen. Sometimes she would sing liebedig songs, and sometimes she would sing slow songs. I could always tell what mood she was in by what songs she sang. I learnt from her that no matter what you are going through, you must put yourself together, put on the best you have, put on your makeup, comb your sheitel, and walk out with your shoulders back and your head held high, because you can do it.
That is what Jewish women like Tamar, Miriam, Devorah, Yael, Esther, and Mrs. Swerdlov’s mother bring to us. Through their love and belief in us and Hashem’s providence, they tell us, “You can do it!” Just like Miriam and Devorah, may the merit of Jewish women herald the time when we will “Sing to Hashem a new song” )Tehillim 98:1) with the coming of the great-grandson of our mother Tamar, Moshiach Tzidkeinu, soon in our days.