International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, falls on Shabbat B’Shallach, also Shabbat Shira, this year. The coincidence gives us the opportunity to celebrate women’s voices in the Torah while also commemorating women Holocaust survivors, many of whose voices were silenced. The Torah portion contains the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), sung after the Israelites’ passage through the parted Sea of Reeds, or Red Sea. Moses and Miriam lead the people in song.
In the words of Debbie Friedman’s 1989 “Miriam’s Song” (from Exodus 15:20-21):
“And the women dancing with their timbrels
Followed Miriam as she sang her song
Sing a song to the One whom we’ve exalted.
Miriam and the women danced and danced
the whole night long….”
The women we remember from the Holocaust were silenced because the Nazis murdered them, they sometimes chose not to speak of their experiences if they survived, or they were often left out of history in a male-dominated narrative. The Torah, too, is a male-dominated narrative, and this coincidence of reading about Biblical women singing aloud on the day that we commemorate silenced female Holocaust victims is jarring.
With that disconnect playing in my head, I couldn’t help but go to another night of dancing and singing, until the early morning of October 7. And again, the women’s experiences were silenced. Both during the Holocaust and on October 7, women suffered not only as Jews but as women, as victims of sexual violence. Many survivors of sexual violence during the Holocaust self-silenced because they were ashamed. This time the silence was different. The victims, living and murdered by Hamas, didn’t have the opportunity to hide what they had endured. There are video recordings – some from the body cams of Hamas terrorists – that testify to what happened. Eyewitnesses, ZAKA responders, and the women responsible for preparing bodies for burial have come forward with horrific descriptions. (And now we are told that rape continues for the hostages still in Gaza.) However, there was, and in many cases still is, silence on the part of international women’s organizations and the United Nations.
Shabbat Shira is a “split screen” in my head this year: celebrating women’s voices in the Torah, commemorating the silence about sexually violated women during the Holocaust, and mourning the much more recent victims who have been treated with silence for too long by those who should know better.