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Mothers in Israel: Shabbat Shira 2021

02/02/2021 10:03:29 PM


Here are the words that Cantor Fogelman offered in honor of this year’s Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of Song) on January 29:

Tonight, in honor of Shabbat Shira, I’d like to offer a musical exploration of women’s voices in the Hebrew Bible – specifically, Miriam, Deborah, and Hannah. I wanted to focus on women in leadership this year in particular, given that we just inaugurated our first female Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris. The idea of shattering the glass ceiling is fresh in our mind and I wanted to pay tribute to this momentous moment in our nation’s history.

The three women I’ll be discussing tonight are depicted in the Bible not just in verse but through song and poetry. When the Jewish nation survived a pivotal historical event, it was often recorded as song or poetry as an expression of gratitude. Women often sang these songs, since the Biblical custom was for women to celebrate the victor after a battle. Many of thee songs have inspired contemporary singers and musicians in liturgical, popular, American, and Israeli genres. We’ll learn about each of these heroines and then hear a modern musical adaptation of each woman’s life and story. And – as a bonus – the musical settings I’m singing are also all written by women!


We begin with Hannah, who is credited with being the creator of spontaneous prayer. We read Hannah’s story during Rosh Hashanah. This seems appropriate given that this is the time of year in which we look deeply inwards in our attempts to become better people in the coming year. Hannah is a wife, mother, and spiritual guide who prayed long and hard before giving birth to her only son, Samuel. Her prayer teaches us how each of us can experience God personally and that what we pray for is a reflection of what is in our hearts. The fact that Hannah’s prayers were answered gives us hope and shows us that there isn’t one specific rubric for successful prayer other than kavanah – intention.

“At a time when women’s voices weren’t heard in the sanctuaries and men were the priests, Hannah speaks straight to the Eternal,” writes Marsha Pravder Mirkin.

The legendary Israeli poet Rachel faced a similar struggle to bear children. Her poem, Akara expresses this longing drawing on inspiration from Hannah and other biblical women like Rachel. Almost every word in this poem is found in the Bible. “I still wax bitter, like Rachel, I still pray, like Hannah, at Shiloh. I still wait for him.”

(Featured: Israeli composer Paul Ben Haim’s adaptation of this famously beautiful poem, played by our own Dina Pruzhansky)


            Deborah is the focus of the Haftarah that we traditionally read on Shabbat Shira. It comes from the Book of Judges. Deborah’s song is an example of a military victory song, which she sings after the Israelites killed their opposing army’s general, Sisera. It’s a song that highlights feminine sensitivity and intuition. Deborah pictures Sisera’s mother looking out of a window, wondering why it is taking so long for her son to come home. Deborah celebrates victory, but shows compassion for the enemy.

            Leaders in Deborah’s time referred to her as a prophet because of her knowledge and application of the Ten Commandments in a compassionate and just manner, and her strength to fight for their guiding principles. In fact, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg – Zichrona Livracha – once said in an interview that she counted Deborah amongst her role models as a young Jewish girl growing up in Brooklyn.

            “One [role model] was real, one was made up, and one was biblical,” she said. “Amelia Earhart. A hero. Nancy Drew – she didn’t wait for boys to solve problems, she just did it herself. And Deborah, the judge from the Hebrew Bible. I didn’t know what judges did, but I wanted to be like her.”

            When The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones asked her in an interview to elaborate, Ginsburg talked about another role model: Pauli Murray, the African American civil rights lawyer who worked with Ginsburg on the landmark litigation that established the legal category of gender discrimination.

            “Pauli was driven by her faith from the start. The only way she survived. The truth she followed was bigger than laws, bigger than even her own life. She eventually left the court to become the first ordained African American female Episcopal priest, part of the first class of women to enter the priesthood in the denomination. A bit like Deborah, yes?”

Devorah’s song is poetry, but it’s also about war. She is grateful to God that her people has been spared, and the enemy has not. Yet one line from Devorah’s poem has made its way from victory in war to the peace of Shabbat: ”Awake, awake, O Devorah! Awake, awake, strike up the chant!” (Shoftim/ Judges 5:12)

This line: “uri, uri, Devorah, uri, uri, daberi shir,” which literally means “arise [or awake], Devorah, arise, my words of song,” was used in the fifth verse of the famous Shabbat hymn “Lecha Dodi”. We sang it earlier this evening: “Uri uri shir daberi , Kavod Ado-nai alayich niglah. . . .”

Perhaps for poetic reasons, the author of Lecha Dodi switched the words “daberi shir” to “shir daberi,” but the intent, as far as I can tell, is the same: “arise, arise, the song of my words, let the glory of God be upon you and revealed. . . ”

Lecha Dodi is also about redemption, in the classic Jewish understanding: that one day we will be returned from exile and free and peaceful in the Land of Israel. In the meantime, we only have a little “taste” of redemption, in the peace of Shabbat. Yet Shabbat doesn’t happen automatically: we have to awaken our consciousness to embrace a day of gratitude, of reflection, of connection to others, to

God, and to our own deepest self.

            (Featured: Debbie Friedman’s adaptation of Deborah’s story into contemporary song. You’ll see that she uses that “Uri uri daberi shir” as the chorus of her song; a recurring motif that reminds us of Deborah’s success in taking a stand and raising her voice).


The centerpiece of Shabbat Shira is the reading of the Song of the Sea, known in Hebrew as Shirat Hayam. There is a bit of debate as to who actually wrote this very famous biblical passage. At first, the Torah explicitly states that Moses and the Israelites sang a song to God. A later portion of the text is specifically attributed to Miriam, Moses’ sister, who picked up a timbrel and led the women in singing and dancing. Although the Torah delineates that Miriam’s song is only one verse long, it is possible that Miriam contributed more to Shirat HaYam than just this one line of text.

The Bible scholar William Propp speculates that Shirat HaYam was originally the song of Miriam, comparable to the song of Deborah.  The redactor shifted all but the opening lines to their present position, making Moses the singer and relegating Miriam to the female chorus.  The final redactors of the Torah seemed to downplay women.

In taking a closer look, Miriam is automatically included amongst the Israelites who sang the first part of the song, which forms the bulk of Exodus Chapter 15. This section of the text begins with a promise in the first person, chanted to a special melody reserved especially for the Song of the Sea:: “Ashira ladonai, ki gaog’a, sus v’rochvo rama vayam -- I will sing to Adonai, for he has triumphed in glory, horse and rider, he has hurled into the sea.” Moses may have led the Israelites into the wilderness and across the Red Sea, but he didn’t lead them in song. In actuality, they sang together.

Later, in verse 20, Miriam picks up her timbrel and leads the women in singing and dancing. How did the women manage to find timbrels in the wilderness? It is said that one of the reasons for calling Miriam a prophet is because she had the foresight to bring instruments with her on this journey into the desert. Even as the Israelites were rushing to pack, so much so that they did not leave enough time for their bread to rise, Miriam anticipated an eventual need for a musical celebration – whether it be for a victory or simply to lift the spirits of her fellow travelers.

In verse 21, Miriam doesn’t just sing and dance: “Va’taan lahem“– she answers the dancing women – “Shiru L’adonai, ki gao ga’a sus v’rochvo rama vayam -- Sing to Adonai, for He has triumphed in glory, horse and rider, he hurled into the sea.” The song that she begins is almost the same as the one that Moses and the Israelites sang collectively. The difference is in the way she shares it: Miriam encourages all of the Israelites to sing together, to become part of the story, to celebrate as a community. It is therefore possible that Miriam wrote the song in its entirety, but was waiting for the right moment to bring out her drum and lead the Israelites in a victory dance. 

Earlier in the service, you heard a musical excerpt of this beautiful text set to music by Rabbi Shefa Gold: Ozi V’Zimrat yah, Vayhi Li Lishua: Adonai is my strength and song; God has become my deliverance. These words can also be found in Psalm 118 and Isaiah chapter 12, illustrating their continued applicability in affirming God’s ability to bring comfort in times of need.

I’m now going to chant from the Song of the Sea itself. You’ll see a photo of how the text looks in the Torah itself: spread out across the page representing the waves of the see or the bricks of the Israelite slaves – whichever interpretation you prefer. You’ll also be able to follow along with the English text as you decide for yourself whether the text should be attributed to Miriam, Moses, or a combination thereof.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782