The Audi commercial aired at the Super Bowl this past week about a girl who enters a boxcar race against a bunch of boys, begins with the father questioning, “What do I tell my daughter? Do I tell her that her grandpa’s worth more than her grandma? Do I tell her that despite her education she will be valued as less than every man she ever meets? Or maybe I’ll be able to tell her something different.” Don’t emphasize what they can’t do, says the commercial, teach them about their potential.
This commercial highlights the damage that can be done by emphasis on negative statements and the good that can be done by positive statements. This is true for statements about women’s Torah leadership as well. Focusing on what women shouldn’t do discourages women from Torah learning, leading to fewer female role models in our communities and less Torah observance among women.
In contrast, the positive effect of female spiritual leadership can be seen clearly in Parshat Beshalach. After Moshe leads the nation in singing az yashir after kriyat Yam Suf, Miriam leads another song just for the women. The Torah states: Miriam took a tof (timbrel) in her hand and all the women came out after her betupim u’vimcholot, with timbrels and dances, according to some commentaries, another type of musical instrument (Shmot 15:20).
The midrash Mechilta asks on this verse, “From where did the women get timbels in the desert?” The midrash answers, God promised the tzadikim (the righteous) redemption so they made timbrels at the time of the exodus from Egypt.
Rashi, in quoting this midrash, makes a significant change. Rashi comments: “The tzidkaniyot (righteous women) of that generation were [so] certain that the Holy One, blessed be He, would perform miracles for them, they took timbrels out of Egypt.” Rashi places the initiative in the hands of the righteous women, whereas the midrash Mechilta’s language could be referring to men or women, it is unclear. Based on the midrashic tradition that it was in the merit of the righteous women that we were redeemed from Egypt (found in Talmud Bavli Sotah 11-12 and elsewhere), Rashi explains that the women’s faith in God was so strong that they anticipated the redemption and prepared to celebrate it with musical instruments.
Following Rashi’s reading of the midrash, Miriam’s spirituality inspired “all the women” to be tzidkaniyot, she strengthened them. The entire nation celebrated God’s saving them from Egypt and the women, whose faith had been particularly strong expressed their praise as well, inspired by Miriam. Let Miriam’s example be a model for our communities today, where female Torah leaders are encouraged so that they can inspire girls and women and ultimately strengthen the entire community.