At just about the same time as the third annual Women’s March was getting started this past Saturday morning in Washington, D.C., synagogue-goers were settling in for the weekly Torah reading, which this week described what may have been the first documented women’s march in history. After the Israelites crossed the sea and witnessed the demise of the Egyptians, “Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam called out to them, ‘Sing to the Lord, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea.’ ”
Miriam’s legacy is cemented in that song, but it is far from her only achievement. The Talmud expands on her crucial role in Jewish history: when Pharaoh ordered every Jewish male offspring flung into the Nile, Amram, the head of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court of elders) at the time, announced that he was separating from his wife. “Why bring children into the world for nothing?” he reasoned, and all the men of the generation did the same – that is, until Miriam spoke up.
Responding to Amram, her father, she said, “Your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s. He only decreed against the males, and you’ve decreed against males and females.” Amram was convinced and reunited with his wife. The men of the generation followed suit.
The girl power theme continues in the haftarah reading, which recounts the leadership of Deborah the prophetess and the heroism of Yael. Ahead of a key battle with the feared army commander Sisera, Deborah summoned the Jewish general Barak and promised him that Sisera would be delivered into his hands. Barak appeared somewhat unsure of the prophecy. “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go,” he responded, at which point Deborah unleashed a burn of biblical proportions, countering, “I will go with you. However, there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking, for then the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” (To his credit, Barak seemed OK with that arrangement.)
Deborah’s prophecy proved true, but Sisera managed to flee, wandering into the welcoming tent of Yael, who offered him something to drink and a place to rest. It was all a ruse, though, for when the exhausted Sisera fell asleep, Yael slipped into the room, grabbed a tent pin in her left hand and a hammer in her right, and proceeded to impale him. “At her feet he sank, fell, lay outstretched;… where he sank, there he fell destroyed,” the story concludes.
Back in Washington, this year’s Women’s March was a significantly smaller draw than the previous iterations, and it’s no secret why. Its leaders have failed miserably to answer serious questions about their views on anti-Semitism and Israel, opting instead to double down on their cosy relationship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and a seriously warped view of the Middle East. As the depleted march began, it was an opportune moment to be reminded of the valorous women in our own history.