March 1, 2013: The Women of Ki Tissa (Ki Tissa)

The Women of Ki Tissa

I’d like to focus on the heroic women of this week’s parsha. “Women? What women?” you may ask. It’s true that the text itself does not prominently display the women; to find them we must delve a little beneath the surface. Whereas the Torah itself tends to downgrade the status of women, Midrash—the creative exegetical process that zeroes in on surface wrinkles and exploits them to reveal multiple hidden layers of meaning—why, Midrash often elevates women. As a literary genre, Midrash itself is a feminine enterprise, because, in the words of feminist theologian Judith Plaskow, it allows to experience of women to rise up out of the white spaces between the black letters of Torah. In Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler amplifies: “All that was initially concealed and repressed and reversed is naked [in Midrash], all that was banished and yet haunted unceasingly [those at the margins of society].” (
Gender/MIDRASH.htm) Who were these storytellers who told Midrash? Perhaps many of the authors themselves were women. They found a voice in Midrash, just as female authors today find a voice by writing contemporary Midrash, even their voices are muted are muted on the page of Torah itself.

The Midrash of the women at the Golden Calf appears at the margins of the Talmud, in tractate Megillah (itself devoted to interpolating the lessons of the Book of one of Bible’s greatest heroines, Esther), in a side comment by Rashi (whose own daughters, by the way, famously defied Rabbinic law by laying tefillin), linking women forever with the celebration of Rosh Hodesh, the first day of every new month: “The women heard about the construction of the Golden Calf and refused to submit their jewelry to their husbands. Instead they said to them: ‘You want to construct an idol and mask [which is an abomination] and has no power to redeem? We won’t listen to you!’ So the Holy, Blessed One rewarded them in this world in that they would celebrate the New Moons more than the men, and in the Next World in that they are destined to be renewed like the new moons, as it written: ‘your youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s.’ (Psalm 103:5)” (bMegillah 22b)

What is the surface wrinkle in the text of this week’s parsha that the Midrash uses as its opening to delve in? It’s very subtle. It’s in the first three verses of chapter 32. Can you find it? It took me awhile to find it, and only with the assistance of another Rashi commentary… (sometimes these textual anomalies are obvious, but this one’s not) On verse 2, Rashi quotes another Midrash: “Aaron said to himself, ‘The women and children are fond of their jewelry. Perhaps the matter will be delayed, and in the meantime, Moses will arrive.’ But they did not wait for their wives and children to give up their earrings, and they took off their own earrings.” In the text, ha’am, “the people,” refers to all the people—that’s the simplest meaning. But for the Midrashim—and both Midrashim read it this way—“the people” refers to the men only, because in verse 2, Aaron is addressing the people as if they have wives, so we know he’s talking to the men only. Granted, the Torah generally speaks from a male perspective, but that’s exactly the point!

So, combining the two Midrashim, the women refuse to submit to their husbands, they refuse to worship the Golden Calf or contribute anything to its construction (and there’s a reprimand here, I think, to the biased view that all the women care about are their gold trinkets, it’s actually the other way around: the men in their idolatry prove to be more vain than the women, who are loyal to the power of Adonai alone to save).

But why are they rewarded, of all things, with Rosh Hodesh? To this day, women gather among themselves to celebrate the New Moon, and in recent decades, it’s an increasing popular custom. Well, one prosaic explanation is that the three festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, had already been assigned to the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob respectively, so Rosh Hodesh was what was left. And then of course there’s the universal biological link between the ovulation cycle and the lunar cycle. But, in addition to these, I think there’s also a spiritual answer for the connection between Rosh Hodesh and women, and for this we turn to one final Midrash:

Originally, the sun and the moon from the verse in Chapter One of Genesis were the same size: “and God made the two great luminaries, one to rule over the day and the other to rule over the night.” But the moon complained to God: “Sovereign of the Universe,” she asked, “can two rulers share the same crown?” God answered: “Your objection is just. Go and make yourself smaller!” “Sovereign of the Universe,” the moon cried. “I presented the proper claim. Why should I be the one to diminish myself?” Hearing this, God realized that she was right, so He compensated for her diminution by decreeing that Israel would calculate the days and the years in its calendar through her, not the sun, and furthermore a sin offering would be brought on Rosh Hodesh to atone for God’s sin, and finally, in the distant future, He would intensify herto once again equal her celestial counterpart, as it is written: “and the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun.” (Isaiah 30:26)

This final Midrash speaks not only of ongoing inequality between women and men, beyond that to the inevitability of inequality in an unredeemed world Think about it. As soon as you have two entities that interact, you have hierarchy. The luminaries were the first pair in God’s creation. As soon as God created two, instead of one, there was bound to be inequality between them. The moon in the Midrash has it absolutely right: “how can two rulers share the same crown?” One must act, and the other must be acted upon. One must initiate, and the other must receive. One must control, and the other must be controlled. There can never be absolute equality between two separate things. And yet we still long for equality, for unity, for connection, for indivisibility—if not in this world, then in the next. This is the ultimate paradox of existence.

The world that we live in is characterized by separation, difference, and, yes, hierarchy. But the moon, which continually waxes and wanes in a never-ending cycle, and women, who literally create life and renewal in every generation, remind us that there is a Unity underlying all existence in which we are equal agents and toward which the world strives. “In the Next World in that the women are destined to be renewed like the new moons.” There’s actually another way to translate lehitchadeish, not “they will be renewed,” but “they will renew themselves.” Ultimately, both women and men will become not passive victims of circumstance, but active agents in their own destiny.