There was an opinion piece in the Boston Globe recently entitled, “War’s glass ceiling.” Perhaps it would make your own conflicting emotions churn as mine did. The subtitle read, “Pentagon moves closer to allowing women to fight.” Above the article was printed a large photograph of a young woman in full battle gear in Iraq, her finger on the trigger of her rifle as she runs for cover. The article begins by pointing out that “over 130 women have died in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq…,” adding wryly, “and yet they were not in combat.” The article goes on to address the paradox that women in the armed forces are not officially assigned to combat, but due to increasingly blurry role distinctions often find themselves fighting alongside male comrades. Urging an end to the paradox, and looking beyond the hypocrisy, the author writes, “Ladies, get your guns. And grenades. And possibly your gut-slitting knives.”
The sexism in regard to women in the military is as blatant as in so many other facets of life, as homophobia was on full display in the recently repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell policy.” In the long road to equality and justice, however, these are both struggles that do not excite me. While my head says, “of course there should be equal opportunity in the military,” my heart and soul cry out against the myth of might, the perpetuation of war and weaponry as the way of conflict resolution. I cry out at the largest context of institutionalized violence the world has known, the young of nations arrayed against each other to kill and to be killed. War, and preparation for its presumed inevitability, is the backdrop for all the violence that tears societies apart, youth killing each other on urban streets, domestic violence, bullying. Mothers, fathers, and children look out of windows that will never frame the missing one, only to wonder at the slaughter. And there is cold comfort in the mechanical words of praise that come so easily from generals and politicians.
My thoughts turned round and round while reading the Torah portion called B’shallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16) during the week that I read the article about women in the military. These chapters in the Torah tell of Israel’s crossing through the parted waters of the sea, told to be silent as they look back upon the drowning of the Egyptians. It is a portion of both violence and hope, of teaching meant to counter the violence and help us look beyond. The Sabbath on which this portion is read is called Shabbos Shira/the Sabbath of Song. It is so called because of the song that Moses and then Miriam sing in awed response to what has just happened. In the traditional way of chanting the “Song at the Sea,” joy is diminished in the interplay of sprightly tune when singing of Israel’s redemption, and mournful undertone when singing of the drowning of the Egyptians. As in pouring off drops of wine at the Passover Seder when reciting the Ten Plagues, ritual comes to teach us that we are not to celebrate the destruction even of those who would harm us.
The Prophetic reading, called the Haftorah, for “the Sabbath of Song” is from the Book of Judges (4:4-5:31) and contains the song of Deborah, creating a parallel with the song in the Torah reading. Rising to a crescendo of violence, it is a song of dissonance. A judge in Israel, Deborah seems to look beyond the din of battle, as it rages in the moment, to a time of peace, “My heart is toward the lawgivers of Israel, that offered themselves willingly among the people…. Instead of the noise of adversaries, between the places of drawing water, there they will tell the righteous acts of God, the righteous acts of restoring open cities in Israel.” Fleeing the field of battle the enemy general, Sisera, is taken in by Ya’el. As he sleeps, she pierces his head with a tent peg.
Of women representing all who wait, we come to the end of the reading and cross a threshold. The Haftorah ends as we enter the home of Sisera’s mother and encounter the ubiquitous grip of palpable grief before the unavoidable truth that there shall be no homecoming. In the universal plaint of the one who waits, perhaps the end is meant as counterpoint to the violence, “Through the window the mother of Sisera looked forth, and peered through the window; why is his chariot late in coming? Why tarry the strides of his chariot?” The question lingers, asked twice, why, why?
As the Song at the Sea begins, it too looks ahead beyond the violence, az yashir Moshe/then Moses sang. Commentators are quick to point out that literally the words mean, then Moses will sing. It is a song of the future, a song to be sung in the time of the Messiah, the time of the ultimate redemption, when swords shall be turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks. The song of Moses, the song of Miriam, the song of Deborah are all one song. Of pain that gives rise to hope, it is also our song. It is the hope for a time when valor shall not be sought on the battlefield, when equality and justice shall be the fruit of peace.
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein