Until recently the history of our people was written by men, yet even they could not ignore the importance of the women in their lives. Tonight we will hear about three groupings of women from our tradition. Each stands in her own right but when taken together we see how important Jewish women have been to the ongoing survival of our people. Tonight we honor some of the women who helped to shape the people of Israel, who ensured the survival of our people and who, each in their own way, fought for the rights of women.
We begin with the Matriarchs: Sarah was the first of the matriarchs. Known in some quarters as Sara Imenu- Sara the mother- she was known for her ability to nurture those around her.
The rabbis of old were so greatly focused on Sarah’s ability to suckle those in need — both literally and figuratively — that in one midrash they describe how noble women came from near and far so their children might gain sustenance from her. Nurture those closest to you and even those you may not have yet met. That is one of the lessons Sarah teaches us.
Rebecca was the next matriarch. She was known for her kindness and generosity of spirit. When she saw Abraham’s servant standing at the well, she ran to greet him. “Thank my Lord,” she said as she lowered her jar and let him drink after his long journey. But that was only the beginning. As soon as he had had his fill she turned her attention to his camels and allowed the animals to quench their thirst as well. Kindness to everyone — even the strangers and animals you meet along the way. That is one of the lessons Rebecca leaves us.
The rabbis understood the central role of both Sarah and Rebecca. They taught that as long as Sarah was alive, the doors of her tent were wide open to guests, and a cloud of glory hovered over the entrance of her tent. It disappeared upon her death but returned when Rebecca came into the family. From this we learn that the best qualities can be passed from one generation to the next.
Leah was the third matriarch. About her it is said, V’eyney leah rachut- and her eyes were rachut. The rabbis of old translated this word to mean that Leah had weak eyes. Rashi teaches that this was the result of her many tears. But there is a different way to translate the word. For just as easily as it can mean “weak eyes,” the phrase can also mean “tender eyes.” Look upon one another with kindness. That is one of the lessons Leah leaves to us.
The final matriarch was Rachel. The Bible tells us that she was “lovely in form and beautiful.” From this we learn that beauty is a quality we carry within, not without. In Rachel we find the depth and complexity of us all. We see her emotional fire as she is overcome with jealousy over Leah’s ability to give Jacob children. We see her independence, as she steals her father’s idols and hides them within her camel’s seat cushions. We see her strength as the next link in a chain of women that began with Sarah and continues with each of us.
Four women- four distinct personalities- so many traits that each of us posses. Our very presence here honors their memory and our commitment to Judaism speaks to all they accomplished.
In each generation we see women who took action, devoted themselves to family and community. Each left her mark, so much so that we might honor them tonight. Tonight we tell the story of Moses. He heard God’s voice and, as a result, saved our people. Throughout his life Moses learned lessons of caring, determination and commitment from the women who surrounded him. His strength was the result of theirs.
Moses was born to Yocheved, as strong an individual as there has ever been. She refused to blindly follow Pharaoh’s evil decree. Instead, she saved the life of her newborn child and, in so doing, saved our entire people. In a selfless act that only a devoted mother could undertake, she placed baby Moses in an ark and set him afloat. She placed her faith, and her son’s life, in God’s hands.
Yocheved took action. Yocheved trusted in God. And because of it Moses, and Judaism, survived. From her we learn that we should always pray as if everything depends on God, but we should always act as if everything depends on us.
But she is not the only one.
The rabbis tell us that even though Miriam, Yocheved’s daughter and Moses’ sister, was only five years old, she set out to protect Moses as well. The rabbis tell us that Miriam watched as her mother placed the infant in the basket and set him afloat on the Nile. Yocheved stepped away, broken-hearted. Miriam, however, “stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.” Even at five years old, Miriam kept watch to ensure that Moses, and Judaism, would survive. From her we learn that, young or old, we have a role to play on one another’s lives.
Moses was born into a family of strong women and so it comes as no surprise that, years later, he married someone similar. Zipporah was a woman of strength and character. Her voice is rarely heard but her role in our people’s history is clear. Moses worked on a communal level and in so doing ensured that our people would survive. Zipporah, who was not even a formal member of the Jewish people, understood that it is only through small, individual acts of commitment that community is built. So it was that she dedicated her son to Judaism by wielding a flint and circumcising her son. From her we learn that small acts of commitment are often as important as the larger more public ones.
Yocheved, Miriam and Zipporah — in each generation it is the mothers, the daughters, the sisters and the wives who ensure that l’dor va’dor, from one generation to the next, am yisrael chai — the people of Israel live.
We are the women of TSTI. We are the teachers, the rabbis, the cantors, the temple presidents, the bat mitzvah mothers and more. We freely choose what role we will play in Jewish life. We decide how we might offer our individual talents to the whole of our congregation. But it was not always that way.
Our freedom, our equality, our opportunities only exist because of those who came before us. Tonight we honor the Jewish women who challenged the status quo and paved the way for us.
We honor Rabbi Sally Priesand- whose rabbinic ordination in June of 1972 opened the door for women to become rabbis… and cantors.
We remember Judith Kaplan- whose bat mitzvah on March 18th, 1922 paved the way for each of us who has become a bat mitzvah since.
We remember Miriam, Yocheved and Rachel, the daughters of Rashi who are said to have donned tefilin, thereby opening the door to Jewish rituals once prohibited to women.
And we remember Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, the Daughters of Zelophehad. When their father died and his land was to be handed over to others they said no! They pleaded with Moses and Eliezer to challenge the status quo and hand the land to them. Moses sought God’s counsel and the reply was loud and clear: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just.”
Rabbi Priesand, Judith Kaplan, Rashi’s daughters and those of Zelophehad, each stood up to the assumptions regarding what Jewish women can or cannot do. Each helped pave the way for us to take our place in Jewish life. They each chose their role. Now we must each choose ours.
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