Parashat B’shalach

Friday, January 18, 2019 /12 Shevat, 5779
Parashat B’shalach  Exodus 13:17-17:16

Dear Friends,

Essentially, we look at all things through the prism of our own perspectives and time.

As modern Jews, and 21st century Americans, we look at events with the lens of today’s values and teachings. We might find anachronistic the concept of offering animals as sacrifices in the Temple, as a means to approach God, just as we might find it anathema that a US president owned slaves, as did Thomas Jefferson. Our day informs our judgement, and rightly so.

But, so too has the perspective of those from earlier days been superimposed or overlaid over their understanding of earlier events. Note the explanation of Rashi, our 11th  century Torah commentator to the verse in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah states, describing the Song at the Sea (Mi Chamocha)  celebration in Exodus after we escaped Egypt, and Pharaoh’s charioteers drowned in the waters, “And Miriam sang to them, ‘Sing ye to the LORD, for God is highly exalted’.”  But, Rashi expounded, “Moses sang the song to the men, and Miriam sang the song to the women.”  To be fair, Rashi cited the Talmud 9Sota 30) as his source.

What I find fascinating is that the commentary is obliged to explain how Miriam might have been caught singing to a group of men. Talmud forbade women from singing to men, especially religious music, as that could tempt them into lascivious behavior. The linguistic clue is in the words, to them. In Hebrew the pronoun is in the male plural form, indicating the Miriam sang to men, or to a mixed gender group. The Talmud, however, could not abide such a travesty, and introduced the idea that Moses and Miriam, brother and sister, sand contrapuntally, and the respective genders responded by singing with them.

Today, this issue demonstrates the boundaries of the Reform and more devote Orthodox sects within Judaism. We progressive Jews think nothing of singing with both genders, and I haven’t witnessed an episode of singing the Mi Chamocha with mixed genders resulting in sexual promiscuity. Yet, my Orthodox neighbors cannot abide such a possibility.

We live in a world or our own parochial lenses, seeing all things through the prisms of our perspectives and times.   The commentary, and behaviors, around this week’s Torah portion, make it abundantly clear.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Doug Kohn