This week’s Torah portion is filled with monumental events in the history of the Jewish people, most notably the Parting of the Red Sea. Anyone who surfs the internet for commentaries this week will find literally hundreds of them, each one with fresh insight. Rather than add my few words to the same topic when others have treated it with such erudition and inspiration, I have turned instead to these interesting verses for which there is little commentary posted: Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth after her with drums and with dances. Miriam spoke to to them, ‘Sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.’ Shemot 15:20-21
Miriam is the first woman in the Torah specifically identified as a prophetess. Our Sages teach that there were many prophets in Israel in days gone by; large numbers of men and women upon whom the spirit of Prophecy rested. Yet only 48 male prophets and 7 female prophetesses are included by name in all of the Tanach. Why is that? How were these chosen and the others not?
Our teachers explain that these 48 men and 7 women delivered prophecies whose message would be needed by future generations while the other prophets and prophetesses prophesied only to their own generation. It does not make their prophecies less valid, by no means. In their generation those messages were vitally important. But when the Tanach was compliled, it was only those whose prophecies addressed needs and issues common to all generations or pertaining specifically to the end of days that were chosen to be included in the body of Holy Scripture.
Among them is Miriam, the sister of Aaron and Moses. Historical sources have preserved for us the account that when Miriam was yet a child, her parents were fearful of having another baby lest it be a boy who would be thrown into the Nile as Pharaoh had by then ordered that all baby boys of the Hebrews be killed in that fashion. The young Miriam spoke out to her father that he must not be afraid to have another child for the baby that would be born would be the redeemer of the children of Israel. Amram and Jocheved did, in fact, have another child after Miriam prophesied to them and indeed, the infant, Moshe, grew up to be the deliverer of the enslaved Hebrews, just as Miriam had foretold.
The only other woman in the Torah who is considered a prophetess like Miriam is Sarah, the wife of Avraham. When Hashem fulfilled His promise to her that she would bear a son in her old age, Sarah was overjoyed. Meanwhile, Ishmael, the son of Hagar, had reached the age of thirteen and at the Brit (circumcision) feast for the newborn Yitzhak, Sarah saw Ishmael making fun of her son. She went to Avraham and told him, ‘Send them away for he will not inherit with my son, Isaac.’ Avraham was grieved because of his love for Ishmael but Hashem spoke to him and said, ‘Listen to Sarah and do what she tells you.’
Sarah knew that an essential element of Hashem’s promise of a son from her womb was that from that son — not Hagar’s son — would descend the Chosen People of Israel. She stood for that truth before Avraham and Hashem Himself backed her up! Because of this utterance, she is viewed as a prophetess and indeed, all succeeding generations of Jews to this day declare that our Patriarchs are Avraham, Yitzhak and Ya’acov.
In addition to these two women, there are five more in the Tanach who are recognized as prophetesses — women through whom Hashem delivered a message of importance to all generations of Israelites.
Dvora was a judge in Israel and also a prophetess. We read in Mishpatim (Judges), chapter 4 and 5, of her conversation with Barak who refused to go to war unless she accompanied him. She did so but prophesied to Barak that the honor of the battle would not go to him but to a woman, Yael, who killed the wicked Sisera in her tent. While there are a number of victory songs recorded in the Tanach, this one is unique in that her song of victory (Judges 5) is thought to be one of the earliest samples of Hebrew poetry and because it is one of the oldest passages that portrays strong, independent women who are willing even to fight on behalf of Israel.
Hannah, the mother of the prophet Shmuel (Samuel), is also recognized as a prophetess. Her persistent prayer and her unshakeable faith have served as powerful examples for women of every generation. In I Samuel 2 after entrusting her little boy into the care of Eli the high priest as she had promised Hashem she would do, Hannah sings exuberant praises to Hashem in which she echoes some fundamental Torah principles, such as the reality of the world to come. I Samuel 2:4-10 are particularly important verses in this regard.
Avigayil was the wife of Nabal when she is introduced to us in Tanach. David, anointed as king over Israel, is angered when his men are turned away by Nabal when they approach him asking for provisions. David resolves to take revenge. Avigayil hears of it, prepares food and goes out to meet David on the way. She persuades him wisely to refrain from seeking his own revenge but trust Hashem to be His defense. Avigayil reminds David that he is the chosen of Hashem and it should not be that an outburst of revenge mar his ascendancy to the throne of Israel. She further reminds him that Hashem has promised to establish for him (David) a house, a dynasty that will rule His people Israel.
One of the marks of true prophecy is that it calls us to higher levels of virtue. This indeed is what Avigayil did and is rewarded with the title of prophetess.
Hulda was the niece of Jeremiah and we read about this little known biblical prophetess in 2 Kings 22:13-20. It was during the reign of King Josiah that a scroll of the Torah was found which the King read. He was terrified after reading it for it described the judgments Hashem would send to His people when they turned away from Torah and lived in rebellion to Hashem. King Josiah recognized that the people of his time were indeed deserving of the judgments for they were not walking closely with their God. He sent four of his trusted servants to inquire of the L-rd regarding the words of the Scroll. The men went to Hulda, the prophetess. Her response is well worth our attention. She confirmed that Hashem would indeed judge the people for their sinfulness but she added something very important. She instructed the servants to return to Josiah and tell him: ‘This says Hashem, the L-rd, ‘Because your heart is soft towards Me and you have humbled yourself before Me, you will go to your fathers in peace. You will not see any of these judgments come upon the people.’
Joshiah’s humility and devotion to Hashem delayed the judgments that were deserved, thereby giving more time for the people to repent. What a lesson for all of us. With regard to this, one commentator said that Hashem’s justice is always tempered by His mercy and therefore strict, unyielding judgment completely devoid of compassion is not reflective of the God that we serve.
Finally Esther, the orphan girl who became queen, is the final prophetess of Tanach. We know her story better than some of the others, the young woman who ascended to the throne for “such a time as this”. What is her message to every generation? Each of us is born for a specific mission at a specific time in our history. It behooves us to find out what our mission is on this earth that we might fulfill it with all of our energy and being. Her story is carefully recorded in the Scroll of Esther.
My challenge to you as well as to myself this Shabbat is that we review the scripture portions noted above which relate to each of these seven women prophetesses and meditate on the central message each one of them left to us, resolving with all our hearts to rise to our calling and be the godly, Jewish women our world needs “for such a time as this.”