Pekudei: A Path to Follow

Speaking of weaving and women’s work…

SERAKH BAT ASHER THE HISTORIAN ADDS: Since we were principally a sheepherding people in ancient times, Israelite women mostly wove wool. Some even say that it was we women of Israel who first introduced colored wool garments into Egypt. For did not Joseph have a splendid “coat of many colors”!

THE SAGES IN OUR OWN TIME ADD: Modern scholars have found pictures of colored garments in Egyptian tomb paintings dating from about the time Jacob’s clan supposedly arrived in Goshen. Anad not only did the Israelite women bring technical expertise to Egypt; they probably acquired from their Egyptian sisters the special technique of splicing and twisting linen that first appears in Canaan about the time the Israelites would have arrived from the Nile Delta.


BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR TEACHERS: The Torah describes the women in the wilderness who spin linen and goats’ hair “WITH THEIR HANDS” as “WISEHEARTED” (35:25). Similarly in the Book of Proverbs (31:13, 19, 22, 24-25), a “WOMAN OF VALOR” is described largely in terms of her weaving skills:

She looks for wool and flax
And sets her hand to them with a will….
She sets her hand to the distaff;
Her fingers work the spindle….
She makes covers for herself:
Her clothing is linen and purple….
She makes cloth and sells it,
And offers a girdle to the merchant,
She is clothed with strength and splendor.

— Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam*

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Vayakhel: A Path to Follow

In this portion, and this portion alone, the women of the children of Israel are identified as a significant group within the larger whole,” writes R. Nancy H. Weiner in her dvar Torah, “Of Women and Mirrors.”

The Torah unequivocally highlights that women are participating in the single most important sacred endeavor of the community of Israel’s collective existence: the building of the mishkan, the place in which God’s presence will dwell among the people and travel with them as they journey toward the Promised Land.

And then the narrative takes a significant turn. The efforts of the entire community become the backdrop for the tasks taken on by the great (male) architects and craftsmen of the mishkan. The portion mentions the contributions of women only once more as it describes the labors of Betzalel, the chief architect of the mishkan. The Torah says, “He made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, with the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (Exod 38:8)…
— Weiner, in The Women’s Torah Commentary

One path to follow is to look at the role of women in the ancient Israelite world. The work of Tikva Frymer-Kensky comes to mind as a starting point.

But Weiner herself suggests another path: “…[Women] are not the only victims of collective amnesia…” Look at less visible Jewish communities of today — Kulanu or Bechol Lashon [In Every Tongue].

The entire piece, “Of Women and Mirrors,” is available at GoogleBooks, The Women’s Torah Commentary.*

* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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Behaalotekha: Great Source

My all-time favorite midrash is a commentary on Numbers/Bamidbar 12:1ff. It identifies Moses’ “Cushite wife,” against whom Miriam complains, as the black ink of the Torah: in this view Miriam believes that Moses has become too wed to the letters of the Torah and its literal meaning, while she continues to advocate for the white space, the oral/folk traditions in Revelation.

I love this commentary because

1) it makes sense of an otherwise obscure passage;

2) it doesn’t require twisting out of shape any of the larger narrative context; and

3) it is both radical and faithful.

More on this midrash, including a “Sermon Slam” story from this episode.

Sadly, however, I cannot tell you where exactly this commentary is to be found. I am sure that I didn’t invent it myself. I believe I was directed to it through end notes in The Five Books of Miriam.

So, this seems a particularly good spot to mention The Five Books of Miriam, edited by Ellen Frankel and published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996.

The dialogue of voices — between “Our Daughters,” “Our Bubbes,” “The Ancient Rabbis,” “Sages in Our Own Times,” and individual women, such as Leah (Torah), Huldah (Tanach), Beruriah (Talmud) — seem particularly appropriate given the variety of voices heard in this portion: Hobab, the people, Joshua, Miriam and Aaron, Moses and God.

Frankel’s device is a great way to show some of the interaction over the years between sources and ideas…and to carry forward that interaction. Another great feature of this book is that it’s eminently readable without reference to the notes, while nicely substantial end notes are offered for those who want them.