Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Two Women, Two Songs

On Shabbos Shira we read the songs of two prophetesses, Miriam and Devorah. These great leaders were not merely giants in their times; they are paradigms for two different paths of avodas Hashem for Jewish women of all generations.

Miriam personified the incredible devotion of Jewish women to the bearing and raising of children, ensuring the continuity of our people. She is first introduced to us as Pu'ah (Shmos 1:15), who coos to the child and soothes crying babies (Rashi). Later, Miriam convinces her father to remarry her mother despite Pharoh's decree to kill all newborn males (Rashi 2:1). As a result, all of the Israelite men followed this example, and many more children were born (Sotah 12a).

Indeed, the redemption from Egypt was a reward to the righteous women. They, like Miriam, persuaded their exhausted and despondent husbands to have more children (Sotah 11b, Rashi 38:8). Logic may have been on the side of the men, and Miriam's father Amram, the Gadol Hador. But the intuition, courage, and emotional strength of the women, led by Miriam herself, ultimately prevailed.

Miriam practiced what she preached. She married Kalev and bore him a son, Chur (Rashi 17:10). In sum, Miriam was the prototype of a mother in Israel, enabling many others to have large families (1:20) despite threats, decrees, and privation.

Devorah, the subject of the Haftorah of Shabbos Shira, represents a totally different model of avodas Hashem. She was a judge (Shoftim 4:4), working outside the home in the public sphere. We read nothing about her children or family, but rather of her issuing military orders (ibid.4:6,7,14).

The songs of these illustrious personalities reflect their respective roles. Miriam sang with a tambourine, with music that inspired all the women to dance (15:20). She sang with heart and emotion, as befits a midwife who witnessed the miracle of birth countless times, and who now saw the open miracle of krias Yam Suf.

Her text was brief and simple, "Sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea" (Shmos 15:21). Apparently, this text was repeated over and over again, in an emotional outpouring of song and dance, for women only.

Devorah, on the other hand, composed a lengthy and complex poem (5:2-31). It was probably read, and not sung musically, for men and women, together with Barak Ben Avinoam (5:1). As a cerebral leader, a judge and military strategist, this was the appropriate shira for her. A brilliant, poetic depiction, replete with nuance and imagery, was Devorah's way of praising Hashem.

Even the introductions to these two songs indicate the differences between the authors. Miriram's tambourine evoked the joy necessary to experience the Divine Presence. The women whom she led overcame the pain of the bearing and raising of large families and felt divine inspiration through music (Kli Yakar 15:20).

These same women, noted for righteousness for convincing their husbands to have more children, are righteous for another reason as well. They had faith that Hashem would perform miracles for them, and, therefore, took tambourines from Egypt (Rashi 15:20). Indeed, it was the very same faith that enabled them to raise families, even when the logic of their husbands and Amram considered it futile and unwise.

Devorah begins her song "I, to Hashem Shall I sing" (5:3). Miriam needs no such introduction. Her role is clearly l'sheim shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. However, a public figure like Devorah might be suspected of ulterior motives, such as the pursuit of glory or egalitarianism. Therefore, Devorah must preface her shira by saying that her song, and her life's work, are lashem.

Today, many more women work out of the home than in past generations. This provides an opportunity for kiddush Hashem. People observe Jewish womens' honesty and politeness, their speech and dress which reflect Torah,not the pervasive vulgarity of modern society, and are moved to love Hashem (Yoma 86a).

Many righteous women struggle to juggle the roles of Devorah and Miriam simultaneously. Some face scorn in a workplace which emphasizes a modern version of self-fulfillment to the exclusion of the Torah's emphasis on bearing and raising children. Fortunately, many experts in the secular world are now recognizing and publicizing the critical role of mothers and fathers in raising their own children, even at the expense of career advancement (U.S. News, Jan. 2002).

Many other equally righteous women devote the best years of their lives entirely to their families, in the spirit of Miriam, It is the duty of Torah society to encourage this unifocal devotion, which has enabled Am Yisrael to flourish through the generations. Especially when careers and opportunities are available, the traditional role of wife and mother must be strengthened.

The lives and songs of Miriam and Devorah demonstrated that there are many ways for women to perform avodas Hashem - l'sheim shomayim. May the righteous women of today, as their ancestresses in Egypt, enable Am Yisrael to be rewarded with the geula shleima.

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