I've always thought it curious that it is customary on the holiday of Shavuot to eat foods made of sweet dairy (cheese blintzes, cheesecake, and so on). In all my childhood and adult years, I never heard a reason for this that made sense. (Perhaps I'll learn others as a result of this column.)
One year, in my reading of this week's parashah, an idea jumped out of the text: almost the entirety of Haazinu is the Song of Moses. This is his second shirah, "song," as the people of Israel stands poised to enter the Promised Land, the end of the wilderness journey. The first shirah catapulted the people into this journey at the shores of the Sea of Reeds. This second poem is filled with images of God: circling, guarding, and carrying the Israelites as an eagle would its young (Deuteronomy 32:10-11); a rock—steady, faithful, and perfect (Deuteronomy 32:4), a father—who created and made us (Deuteronomy 32:6).
Most surprising in this poem are the many feminine images of God. First, the Rock: "You neglected the Rock who begot you, forgot the God who labored to bring you forth" (Deuteronomy 32:18).
And then there's my favorite: "God set them atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth; nursing them with honey from the crag and oil from the flinty rock" (Deuteronomy 32:13).
God fed us—suckled us—with honey from the rock. This primal metaphor of being nurtured by God's goodness, wisdom, and Presence is framed with milk and honey - dairy and sweet. It is not surprising, then, on the holiday in which we open ourselves to remember what it is must have been like to be so close to God's revelatory Presence, we eat the foods that remind us of being suckled directly on that Divine sweetness. (This phrase also names Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's exquisite introduction to Jewish Mysticism, Honey from the Rock—a book I read and reread.)
Mothering, maternal, feminine images of God are not limited to this week's parashah. Like Deuteronomy, the Book of Genesis comes to a close with blessings and poems. On his deathbed, Jacob gathers his sons around him and blesses them. To Joseph, he says,
"by the God of your father, who helps you, Shaddai, who blesses you, blessings of the heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of breasts and womb" (Genesis 49:25).
This poem takes the form of poetic parallelism—couplets in which each part echoes the other. Our poem/shirah of Haazinu is similarly structured:
"Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!" (Deuteronomy 32:1)
Ear -- hear
Let me speak -- I utter
Earth -- heaven.
In the Genesis poem, "God of your father" is parallel with "Shaddai," as "heaven" is parallel with "earth." Rabbi Arthur Waskow, suggests that we understand the Divine Name, "Shaddai," as "the Breasted God".1 It is as obvious a suggestion as it is unconventional and unpopular. Rabbi Waskow notes the name Shaddai is concentrated in the Book of Genesis.
Indeed, at the Burning Bush, God tells Moses, "I am the Eternal [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH" (Exodus 6:3). Moreover, Waskow points out, each time El Shaddai is invoked in Genesis is to invoke blessings of fertility:
"When Abram was 99 years old, the Eternal appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am El Shaddai—walk along before Me and be pure of heart, and I will set a covenant between us, and multiply you exceedingly' " (Genesis 17:1-2)
"May El Shaddai (translated as 'God Almighty') bless you, and make you fruitful and numerous, so that you become a host of peoples" (Isaac speaking to Jacob, in Genesis 28:3)
"God appeared to Jacob again on his return from Paddan-aram and blessed him. . . . And God said to him, 'I am El Shaddai, be fruitful and multiply. A people and a host of peoples shall come from you, and kings shall go forth from your loins' " (Genesis 35:9, 11)
"By the God of your father, who helps you,
Shaddai who blesses you,
blessings of the deep that lies below,
blessings of breasts (shadayim) and womb" (Genesis 49:25)
This is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return and renewal—a call to hear the shofar's cry, Hayom harat olam, "Today is the birth of the world," or "Today is pregnant with eternity." Spiritual wholeness will mean engaging the range of images our tradition offers us—so that we can indeed be nourished by honey from the Rock.
1. "The Breasted God," a Torah teaching for Va-y'chi, The Shalom Center, post date 9/8/2001January 2007).
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism, and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.