The narrative in this week’s parsha is rich and foundational for the formation of the Israelite nation.
The Hebrews have become enslaved to a cruel and stubborn Pharaoh who puts them through numerous trials and tribulations, giving them impossible tasks, degrading them solely for the sake of making them feel small, and violently tears apart families. Moses rises to power, first as a protected and privileged prince of Egypt, forcibly guided by God to be the redeemer of the Israelites.
Despite and indeed because of Moses’ attempts to liberate them, the Hebrews’ living conditions become harsher. A dejected Moses points out to God that the Israelites’ suffering has grown exponentially with every attempt to save them. God retorts with an ominous response: “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh.” (Exodus 6:1) It is these chapters and the ensuing chapters that illustrate the Israelites’ redemption from slavery and that lay the groundwork for Jewish practice, liturgy and identity for generations to come.
But take another look at the parsha and we see that Moses’ birth and very survival lies in the hands of extraordinary women (six of them!) bearing intuitive knowledge and an inherent sense of morality who non-violently demonstrate resistance to tyranny. In doing so, they put themselves at risk as they pave the way for Moses to grow into his leadership role.
The first of these women are the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah. In Exodus 1:15-19, Pharaoh himself instructs them to kill all of the male babies as soon as they are born. But the midwives fear God (more than Pharaoh) and let the babies live. When Pharaoh summons them, demanding an explanation, the midwives provide a cover story, explaining that the Hebrew women, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, are strong and give birth before the midwives can even arrive. Even before there was such a thing as a Hippocratic Oath, these caregivers knew first-hand the importance of “do no harm” — and provide further examples of front-line medical workers being incredibly brave over millennia. However their (in)actions result in a new decree whereby Pharaoh orders all the people of the land to kill every male born child.
In the very next passages (Exodus 2:1-4), we read about a man from the House of Levi marrying the daughter of a House of Levi. Despite the imminent danger, they conceive. The mother gives birth to a boy whom she hides for three months, until she can no longer conceal his existence. Using her ingenuity and creativity, she hides the baby in the marshes near the edge of the Nile after placing him in a specially hand-crafted basket with the hope he will somehow be rescued. He remains there under the watchful eye of his sister. Later in the text it is revealed that these previously unnamed parents are Yocheved and Amram, and the sister is Miriam.
(The sages indicate that even as a child, Miriam demonstrates her foresight and bravery. The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a, shares that Amram, recognizing Pharaoh’s evil decree, becomes hopeless about their future. In order to avoid any possibility of pregnancy, he divorces Yocheved, whereupon others follow his example and also divorce their wives. The Talmud continues, “His daughter, Miriam, said to him: Father, your decree is more harsh for the Jewish people than that of Pharaoh, as Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed both on the males and on the females. And now no children will be born. Additionally, Pharaoh decreed to kill them only in this world, but you decreed in this world and in the World-to-Come, as those not born will not enter the World-to-Come.”
(Almost as an afterthought, Miriam reinforces her reproach of her father by noting that since Pharaoh is wicked, it is uncertain whether his decree will be fulfilled. However, since her father was a righteous person, it should surely follow that his decree would come true. According to this midrash, ultimately Amram accepts his daughter’s rebuke — and mirrors her faith to overcome a broken system — and remarries Yocheved. Everyone else follows his lead and they too remarry.)
What happens next in our portion is nothing short of remarkable — even miraculous. Pharaoh’s daughter, the next of these extraordinary women, comes to the Nile to bathe, and while her servants stand afar, she arrives at the very spot where the child is hidden. She pulls him from the water and recognizes that he is one of the Hebrews. Immediately, Miriam — ever the resilient one — springs into action and offers to fetch the Hebrew midwives who could provide him sustenance. Pharaoh’s daughter, recognizing that these actions were in direct defiance to her father’s (and her own kingdom’s) laws, but sensing the urgency to save the baby’s life commands Miriam with a single word “lechi” — go, and get them. The midwife is compensated for saving the baby until he is returned to Pharaoh’s daughter who in turn raises him as a prince of Egypt.
There is much to be said about Pharaoh’s daughter’s rebelliousness — her defiance against her father, her kingdom, the very stability of her future. And yet, there is little else written about her. She isn’t even given a name in the Exodus text, and we don’t come upon her again until a passage in Divrei HaYamim (4:18): “And his Judahite wife bore Jered father of Gedor, Heber father of Soco, and Jekuthiel father of Zanoah. These were the sons of Bithiah daughter of Pharaoh, whom Mered married.” The commentators recognize the actions of Pharaoh’s daughter and reward her for her generosity of spirit. By taking in Moses as her own child, it is explained, God rewards her by naming her Bithiah/Batya, which translates into “daughter of God.” Furthermore, in Midrash Mishlei 31:5, she is rewarded by “entering the Garden of Eden in her lifetime.”
The qualities that we think of that make a leader are often coded masculine. Should a woman hold them, she is considered unnatural, strange and crazy.
The final woman mentioned in this week’s Torah portion is Tzipporah, Moses’ wife. She is the daughter of a Midianite priest, but remains with Moses and joins him on his return to Egypt — facing both danger on their travels there as well as the wrath of Pharaoh upon arrival. Like the woman who first raised Moses, she too was beholden to a different god, and yet, in Exodus 4:24-26, she too comes to Moses’ rescue and saves his life, this time by circumcising their son. (How did Tzipporah instinctively know to take action whereas Moses didn’t recognize the immediacy and urgency in following the laws of circumcision?) She too shows a certain fortitude and a willingness to spring into action where Moses would not — or could not.
There is much more that can be said for the way we traditionally see gender as it relates to power and power dynamics. The qualities that we think of that make a leader are often coded masculine. Should a woman hold them, she is considered unnatural, strange and crazy. And yet here in the chapters that are the very foundation for our religion, we see six women — from midwives to slaves to royalty — who intuitively take on these leadership qualities in order to achieve a higher good. The resilience, courageousness, fortitude, and bravery shown by these ancient women are met with generations of wonder and awe.
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As we read this week’s parsha, let’s recognize the powerful leadership demonstrated by these six gedolot hador, giants of their generation, and pioneers for the Jewish people and find ways to promote women’s leadership by recognizing these same traits in those around us.
Daphne Lazar Price is executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. For more Torah perspectives, read the JOFA blog.
Tevet 24, 5781
Jan. 8, 2021
Candle lighting at 4:28 pm
Tevet 25, 5781
Torah Reading: Shemot: Exodus 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; Isaiah 29:22-23
Shabbat ends at 5:32 pm