Welcome to my website!
Phyllis Chesler
Books By Phyllis
- Share it! - Tweet it!

Posted in: Devrai Torah, General Jewish Themes

Published on Sep 23, 2016 by Phyllis Chesler

Published by Phyllis Chesler

Shabbat Across America

Good Shabbos, Shabbat Vayakhel Shalom. First, since this is Shabat Across America, let me share some shabbosdicke thoughts. What is Shabbos? Surely, it is a way of making time sacred. No matter where a Jew may be, we can create Shabbos. We can build in time, time is our building material. Each time we create Shabbos, we are building a mishkan in time. Each shul, each home, is a reminder of, a reflection of our longing for the original desert-mishkan and of the first and second temples as well.

Perhaps this custom makes the best of being forced into centuries of life in the Diaspora; perhaps such exile is itself a reminder of our first exile from Gan Aden. Perhaps exile is the necessary ingredient or building material for the coming of Mashiach.

"God created the world in six days and on Shabbos God rested." It’s not just that God rested... “Shavat Va'yinafash” God gave the world a soul.” The Talmud, Baitzah 16A, teaches: God gave each of us a neshama yetairah [additional soul]. That’s why we say “Shabbat Shalom.” Shalom means perfection, wholeness, peace. Thus, on Shabbos we may receive a God- inspired feeling of serenity, peacefulness, completeness, wholeness. Some say this is why we must breathe in spices to strengthen ourselves as our additional soul departs.

God created Adam and Hava on Friday, before the Sabbath, on the sixth day of creation. On that very day we ate of the forbidden fruit. Perhaps, one second before sunset we were driven out of Paradise.

Shabbos-in-time allows prompts our memories and gives us a taste of Paradise past, and Paradise to come. Some say that when God drove Adam and Hava from Paradise, God retained part of humanity's soul to remain there. On Shabbos, G‑d releases that part and gives it back to humanity. This is the extra soul of Shabbos.

Shabbos has two sides. One is the abstention from work, i.e., withdrawing from the world. The other side of Shabbos is what you do with your free time. Shabbos is a rest from wordly work, but also a vigorous exercise and expression of our love for God, experience of God, also through our creation of a God-centered community.

Shabbos is meant to free us from the wordly world...but freedom to do what? Serve God freely is the answer--serve God with a willing heart, a stirred-up heart, a wise heart--all attributes described in last week's and this week's parasha.

The Zohar asks, how did Noach had the strength to resist the evil world. The name "Noach" is the same as the word for "rest." There is something strengthening in a certain kind of "rest." In Midrash Ruth Rabba, Naomi tells her daughter-in-law Ruth (who has been "feeding" Naomi, doing tshuvah, perhaps, for Moav's refusal to feed Israel on our way out of Egypt--an interpretation made by Nechi Sirota of our own shul), that she, Naomi will, finally, obtain a place for Ruth in the world. "Bete, halo avakesh lach manoach asher hay-tav lach." (My daughter, I will find a resting place, a comforting place that will be good for you.") Naomi and Ruth obtain that place for us all--in fact, the threshing floor where Ruth seduces Boaz is presumably the very place where David build the Temple.

Here we are just completing Shmot. Only a few months ago, avadim hayeenu, we were slaves in Egypt. Only a month ago, we were about to kill Moshe, due to our own kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit. Only six weeks ago, we left Egypt, crossed the Reed Sea, experienced a miracle--lived to complain bitterly in the desert. Only five weeks ago we received the Torah--uplifted, terrified. Last week we worshiped the Calf and received the Torah again. Two weeks ago we were instructed on how to build the Mishkan, God's dwelling place amongst us. And here we are, in real time, also just getting ready for Passover, ready to enact this very story all over again.

Psychologically, this deju-vue is hypnotizing, it lulls us with an added layer of familiarity, it refreshes our memories and thus reinvigorates our sedarim. Maybe, too, God and rabbinic tradition have both taken our measure and know how quickly rebellious, ungrateful, forgetful we can be.

Now, today is not only Shabbos. It is also International Woman's Day.

Luckily, it coincides with the culmination of the book of Shmot--a book filled with the the utterly miraculous deeds of Jewish and non-Jewish women as well as those of men. First, the ever-watchful sister-mother Miriam ha'naviya; second, Pharoah's extraordinary daughter Batya who defies her father's authority and not only does not kill a Jewish male infant but adopts him instead as her own. She also pays his mother, a slave, to nurse him. Shifrah and Puah also commit civil disobediance and do not kill the Jewish baby boys. This is significant, whether or not they are "really" Yocheved and Miriam or whether they are actually Egyptian midwives. A good argument can be made either way. Zipporah is the third woman who saves Moshe's life when she circumcizes their son.

I want to call our attention to Beshallach, 15. I refer to the phrase in Shirat Ha-yam, the Song of the Sea: "This is my God "zeh eli." Rashi comments that God's glory had already been revealed to Israel. They recognized God and pointed at God. Rashi says: "Ra'atah shifhah al hayam ma shelo ra-oo nevi'im." The lowliest female handmaid saw at the Sea what later prophets did not see. Their elevation was that high.

In a moment, I will connect this "zeh eli" to a commentary by Maor vaShemesh and by Aviva Zornberg on Miriam and the women and what they do. Zornberg says that the women leapt into danger with joy--just as Bezalel forges surely, masterfully, in fire. This is what is required--at least from prophets, not from we lesser mortals: Joy and song in the midst of the greatest danger.

Also in Beshallach 15, we read that Moshe and all the people will sing to God ("az yashir/ashira la'Adonai). In the future it is what they will do.

However, in 16:20-21 we read that Miriam the prophet, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand, "vatayzen cal hanashim ahareyha" and the all the women went out after her with timbrels and with "u'bemholot." The women went out and danced in a very special circle--each equidistant from each other and equidistant from God--and they praise God in the here-and-now, in the present tense. "Sheroo laAdonai." This is not "Yashir." This is here and now, in the sea, the very sea in which some have said twelve rows or walls were created, one for each tribe, with windows between the walls, so that foetuses in their mothers' wombs could see it all.

Maor VaShemesh, a Hassidic commentary of the early 19th century, by Rabbi Kolonymus Kalman Halevi Epstein of Krakow (1754‑1823).

He discusses the various meanings of a tof and of the word mecholot [Trans: ‘dancing’ according to Targum; Others say that the MECHOL is a musical instrument of some kind. Miriam led them in the response, ‘Sing to God for His great victory,' etc." [Exodus 20:15‑16].

He writes: One must clarify Miriam's "going out" with all the women, for where do they go? Also, there is difficulty in understanding the word "U'BMECHOLOT..." Additionally, one must clarify why though Moses says "Ashirah la'Shem" [I shall sing to God] in the future tense, Miriam says in the present tense "Shiru lashem" [Let us sing to God].

"Perhaps we can provide insight [to these questions] according to what is found in the Gemara, “in the future the Holy One, Blessed be He, will make a MECHOL for the righteous ones, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, will sit between them and each one shall show his finger [i.e., point] 'this is God, we trust in Him.'" And Rashi explains that 'MECHOL' refers to a circle as in “the circle dance of the vineyard."”

PC: Circle dances, vineyards, Ruth and Boaz, Israeli folk dancing, students sitting together in the round....

Maor vashemesh goes on to describe God's creation of many worlds or of many levels, the creation of straight lines and of circles, of greater and lesser, of male and female...

"Then all shall be perceived as the brilliant light of ELOKUT in every world, and and the circle and the line [of emanation] will be equal, but there will be no category [of distinction ] of male-female because all will be equally enabled to perceive the light of ELOKUT, may He be blessed. Just like a circle has no head and end. And no one will have to learn from the other, [because the clear light of His ELOKUT will be revealed in all the worlds], and the circle and the line will be equal as in the “circle dance of the vineyard...Everyone will perceive the brilliance of the light of His Presence equally, as it says “and no one will have teach the other,” for everyone will know Him from the KATAN to the GADOL.

And this is the opinion of the Gemara that in the future God shall make a circle of the TZADDIKIM and will sit amongst them and the TZADDIKIM will perceive a great perception from the Divine Light of which there is no categorical distinction between male and female, and no on will have to learn one from the other for the Light will be revealed brilliantly within all the worlds/levels. The circle and the line will be equal as in the “circle dance of the vineyard,” where from the middle it is equidistant to any point on the circle.

This is the meaning of the HAKAFOT (encircling) that we do on Hoshanna Rabah and Shemini Atzeret...a female will encircle a man, in order to draw through these hakafot the upper light where there is no aspect of male and female. This was the intention of Miriam the Prophetess, who took out all the women after her and made hakafot with them...in order to draw the upper light where there is no aspect of male and female."

How politically correct can a nineteenth century sage be!

Shmot: Finally, in this week's parasha, what has been germinating all throughout Shmot (the strength, disobediance, boldness, seductiveness, capacity for ectasy of women--becomes even more visible, apparent. In 17:22 "Vayavohu ha'anishim al hanahim." We can translate this as the men came with the women. Or, that the women rushed forward first to offer their precious possessions for the mishkan and the men were right behind them. Or, we can contemplate for a moment the image of the women literally bearing the men aloft, as the people rush forward with willing and stirred up hearts to bring personal jewelry, wealth, their labor, to create and adorn the Mishkan. Haanashim al hanashim.

The women used their mirrors to entice their husbands to sleep with them even though the slavery was bitter for both genders. For this reason, the mirrors became the material, the "stuff" of the lavers.

The women did not give up their jewelry to worship the golden calf.

The women were the tzoavot, they gathered to study and to be of service, to do good deeds, petach ha ohel moed right on the threshold of the tent of meeting.

Women were given Rosh Chodesh as a gift from God--in addition to Shabbos. An additional rest. This is another discussion.

I do not want to overlook Moses, another lonely man of faith, another major leader who is at home only with God, not with family. Sent away to die by his mother, saved by an adoptive mother who is Egyptian, brought up as an Egyptian--only he is not an Egyptian, he is also a Jew, but he is now different from both groups, he does not choose Zipproah, Yitro chooses her for him, and he sends her and their sons away. Perhaps this is what Miriam criticizes him for doing....

Moshe's radiant face, his "keren ohr pnai." Leaders, light-bringers, God-lovers, God intimates all do radiate or beam. I am thinking about the masveh, the veil that Moshe wore perhaps until his death, or until the glow faded, if it every did. At first, I thought that he was afraid of frightening and offending his people--it is dangerous to be Chosen, the envy of others is dangerous. Then I thought that Moshe was shy, embarassed by the stares and by the reverance his radiance evoked. he wanted to walk among his people and do his holy work, not be worshiped or feared. Thus, he veils himself.



4:24-6. Vayihee va’derech ba’malon; vayfgishayhu HaShem, vayivakaish hamito. Vatikach Tzipporah tzor, vatichrot et orlat benah, vataga l’raglav; vatomer, ‘Ki chatan-damim atah li.’ Vayiref mimenu; az amrah chatan damim la’mulot.


15:20-21. Vatikach Miriam haniveeah, achot Aharon, et-hatof byadah; vataytzena chol hanashim achareha be’tupim ub’mecholot. Vata’an lahem Miriam; ‘Shiru la’Shem ki-ga’oh ga’ah, sus v’rochvo ramah va’yam.


35:5 Kechu may’itchem terumah la’Shem, kol ne’div libo yevieha et trumat haShem; zahav va’chesef u’nechoshet.

35:21 Va’yavou kol-ish asher nesao libo; v’chol asher nedavah rucho, oto, hayveeu et-terumat haShem l’mlechet ohel moed u’lchol avodato u’lvigdei hakodesh.

Time is the first commandment. Even before the commandment of Shabbos, we were distinguished as a nation via the time. We were commanded on the first of Nissan, the year that we left Egypt, to keep Rosh Chodesh.

We are not accepting comments at this time, please go to the Facebook page to generate discussion!

Back To Top