Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
The Exodus was made possible because of the independent and cooperative will of six brave, righteous “women of justice” – Yocheved, Miriam, Shifrah, Puah, Batya, and Zipporah.
The Women Behind the Man
The Rabbis say the Exodus was made possible because of the merits of righteous women. Now some interpret this statement as a patronizing approach to women in the spirit of the famous dictum – “behind every great man there is a great woman”. These critics say this relegates women to the sidelines and renders them nothing more than hidden tools helping to pave the way for their husband’s success. I have a very different perspective – the Exodus was made possible because of the merits of six righteous women.
Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus which we Jews started studying this week, actually begins the national story of the Jewish People. After twelve weeks of studying Genesis, we’ve gone from the creation of the world through the Abrahamic family sagas and the beginnings of the Jewish People. At the end of the four generation patriarchal period and the Book of Genesis, the Jewish People is a family, and Judaism is a family faith.
Just as many of us have heard family stories about our grandparents or, if we are blessed, we have good memories of them ourselves, and stories about our great-grandparents, so we know the family origin stories about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers – distant tales with important messages, lessons and morals, no doubt; but now we have finally reached Exodus and nation building. Now we shall encounter unique individuals who make a difference, even when God doesn’t speak to them directly.
Undoubtedly, Moses looms very, very large over the Exodus narrative. In the next few months of Torah readings, Moses will talk and listen and act, chastise the Jewish People, bring us the Tablets of the Commandments, twice, and give us the rest of the laws after parting the waters. We will still be reading and studying about Moses next Simchat Torah, ten months from now.
But the rest of the individuals I propose to comment about tonight will have long disappeared. Yet they are indeed the ones responsible for the life of Moses. So, let us pay homiletical tribute tonight to six individuals who populate the shadows – yes, the women behind the man, so to speak.
We begin with Pharaoh’s terrible decree. Determined to exterminate the ancient Israelites, Pharaoh decrees that every baby boy born to the Israelites is be killed. A midrash says that when the Israelite men heard Pharaoh’s evil decree, they took steps to divorce their wives. But the women argued that in so doing, the men were condemning girl babies to extinction as well. So, the men decided to stay with their wives but not to have intercourse, not to risk fathering a baby boy whose life would end in murder.
Again, the women intervened. They said that this would mean that in another generation, there would be no more Israelites, and Pharaoh would definitely have achieved his extermination goal. So the midrash says that when the men came back from working in the fields, their wives helped them bathe, then perfumed themselves and enticed their husbands to have relations with them so that the Jewish People might continue.
One of the leaders of this resistance was Yocheved, mother of Moses. This is a women who already has two children and who lives in a world in which male children are killed by the government upon birth, and yet she has the courage to have a third child. Where does a human being get the courage to bring a child into the world at such a time?
Imagine the anxiety of a mother hushing her crying baby for three months so that Egyptian search parties will not be able to find him, trying to preserve the baby’s life against all odds. And then, when it was no longer possible to hide him at home, she puts him in a wicker basket in a desperate attempt at rescue – another echo here of the Holocaust when parents would give away their children to gentiles, known and unknown, in desperate attempts to preserve their children’s lives. Without the faith and courage of Yocheved and her peers, the Hebrews could have disappeared within two generations, just as Pharaoh had planned.
Should we not also marvel at the devotion and boldness of Miriam, hiding among the reeds to watch over her baby brother floating in a fragile basket on the mighty Nile? She stands on guard duty, waiting and watching to see if the baby will be discovered by anyone or not. And then think of her chutzpah, rushing to the Egyptian princess and offering to hire for her the services of a Hebrew wet nurse, exposing herself as a criminal and relying on the good will and compassion she is able to arouse in the princess’ heart. Where does a young girl get such quick wit?
Yet, for all of Yocheved’s and Miriam’s, mother and daughter’s, courage, their efforts would have been for naught had it not been for the two midwives. It’s amazing that we know their names, Shifrah and Puah, when so many women remain unnamed in the Biblical text. Even Pharaoh himself is given no name. As the great Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna writes, “In this way, the Biblical narrator expresses his scale of values. All the power of the mighty Pharaoh, the outward magnificence of his realm, the dazzling splendor of his court, his colossal monuments – all are illusory, ephemeral, and, in the ultimate reckoning, insignificant, and they must crumble into dust because they rest on foundations empty of moral content.”
Now who were these midwives? The rabbis and commentators are not of one mind. The Hebrew is ambiguous: meyaldot ha-ivriot. The phrase can mean Hebrew midwives – or midwives to the Hebrews. Traditional Jewish scholars are divided. Some favored their Jewish identity. Others identified Shifrah and Puah as Egyptians. Wouldn’t the Pharaoh more likely have ordered his Egyptian compatriots to murder the Hebrew babies?
Mystical symbolism which assigns numerical values to Hebrew letters provides an additional layer of meaning. Shifrah’s name adds up to 855; the sum of these digits is 18, chai, life. The letters in Puah add up to 161; the sum of those digits is 8, the day on which a male child is circumcised. Shifrah and Puah are both givers of life. Most importantly for our story, they provide the first instance of civil disobedience in the Torah, and maybe in all recorded history, setting the groundwork for Yocheved’s and Miriam’s and later, the princess’ bravery.
I’ve always favored the Egyptian identification of the midwives. What models of righteous gentiles they then become, precursors of those individuals who risked everything to save Jews when they were in danger. And is the Torah not also teaching us that resistance to evil is not a Jewish characteristic alone? The midrash embellishes their role even further by suggesting that not only did Shifrah and Puah literally save the babies, but they also collected food and water to keep them alive.
I love a midrash written in just the last few years by Orthodox Rabbi Haim Ovadia. He asks us to eavesdrop on an emergency meeting of the U.M.E., Union of Midwives of Egypt. Shifrah is speaking: “As chair of the union, I call for approval of the motion by our colleague, Puah, to react with civil disobedience to the inhumane decrees of the tyrant Pharaoh. It is true that some of our dear sisters argued that we are risking our lives and the lives of our families, but killing an innocent and helpless human being – be it a Hebrew, an Egyptian, or a Canaanite – is simply wrong. It does not matter whether it is an adult, newborn baby, or dying patient. We cannot take part in that hideous crime.
“As for those who argue that we have no power against Pharaoh’s armies, unto them I say, let his soldiers come and deliver the baby. We have no excuse to commit murder. If more citizens will join our cause, maybe one day we will be able to abolish slavery. But if we choose to cooperate with the establishment and claim that we are mere tools in the hands of a powerful monarch, who knows to what lows the human race will be able to sink in the future under the pretext of following orders.”
The motion, as we know, was approved and carried out. As a result, Pharaoh had to give up on his plans of a covert operation and instead had to employ his army and collaborating civilians to enslave the Hebrews and work them to death. Good work, Shifrah and Puah!
But the woman who fascinates me most in this week’s sedra is the daughter of Pharaoh. Who was this woman? Unnamed and undescribed, except in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments”, she turns out to be the necessary link in the story of Moses’ survival. The Rabbis consider her so righteous that they suggest she was bathing in the river in order to cleanse herself of her father’s idols. They argue that her handmaids warned against such a bold action as saving this Israelite child, because, let’s face it, the princess and her servant girls realized at once that this had to be a Hebrew child.
I would suggest that it’s possible, in fact likely, that when she turns to this young Hebrew girl, Miriam, who steps forward to offer help, that they are co-conspirators. Is it possible that she didn’t know that Miriam was Moses’ sister or that the wet nurse was Moses’ real mother? But nothing is said in the Torah text.
This is a child – decreed for death but destined for greatness – who thrives on the nurturance of two very different worlds, two very different mothers united only in their devotion to a little child. How did the princess ever find the courage to bring an Israelite child into the palace. Rabbi Ovadia again uses his imagination to visualize the scene which unfolded that day in the royal palace.
Pharaoh: “Are you out of your mind, girl? How dare you bring a Hebrew baby into my palace when I declared them as my mortal enemies. You will hand this baby right now to my royal guard.”
Princess: “It’s always the same. You never care about me. It’s only you, you, you, and your stupid decrees. All you care about is what people think of you. . . You know I always wanted a baby, but I can’t have one of my own. The gods sent me this one, and I intend to keep him. And if you wish to defy the gods’ will, let all their wrath unleash against you.”
Pharaoh’s daughter got her wish and kept the baby who grew up to be Israel’s justice warrior.
Have you ever thought about whatever happened to Pharaoh’s daughter, the princess? When this baby whom she reared grew up to become Moses, and you remember that she is the one who named him, and when he confronted Pharaoh, her dad, where was she? Did Moses stop by to visit her, or did he go straight to see Pharaoh. When Moses and Pharaoh argued, did she eavesdrop, and if so, was she on her father’s side or did she side with the child whom she had reared?
For that matter, was she still alive when Moses returned after his forty years in Midian? And if she was, what was their reunion like? Whatever became of her? Did she go with the Israelites when they left Egypt, or did she stay in Egypt with her own people? And what was her name? The Torah only calls her the daughter of Pharaoh; I think we can call her the first foster parent in history.
As I’ve explained many times before, midrash is an exegetical elaboration to fill in the gaps of the often sparse Torah text, and so, the Rabbis couldn’t stand continuing to refer to her only as the princess or the daughter of Pharaoh. They gave her a very special name in honor of what she did. The midrash says that her name was Batya, which means the “daughter of God”.
Yocheved and Miriam, Shifrah and Puah, Batya. It would seem that now Moses’ future is assured, and yet one more woman intervenes in this week’s parasha. In a seemingly bizarre passage beginning with Exodus 4:19, Moses, his wife, Zipporah, and their two sons are finally returning to Egypt from Midian, about to commence the mission of redemption. At an overnight stop, something very strange happens. It seems as if Moses is again in some kind of danger, and Zipporah has to allay the threat by an act of circumcision. Does she circumcise her son, or Moses himself?
Traditional commentators understand this passage as referring to Moses’ failure to circumcise his newborn son, Eleazar. Other modern critics dismiss this passage as an inexplicable fragment. But in a fascinating article by Pamela Reis, the suggestion is made that this incident occurs when Moses is facing the ultimate identity crisis, having to accept the fact that he is no longer an Egyptian prince or the husband of a Midianite priest, but rather will now forever be an Israelite – in fact, the Israelite who must return to his people and lead them out of bondage. And we think we have midlife crises!
Reis suggests that the seemingly bizarre passage occurs at the moment when Moses admits to Zipporah that he is, in fact, an Israelite, not the man she thinks he is. Reis posits that in her rage, Zipporah circumcises their infant son in a travesty of the Israelite rite.
I prefer to believe that Zipporah circumcises the baby, not in an act of rage, but as a recognition of Moses’ new identity. Yet, either interpretation establishes Zipporah as a life-saver, the woman who pushes Moses forward in acceptance of his new role in Jewish history.
We know Moses as a justice warrior. Who were his mentors? From where did he find the courage necessary to face first the Egyptian taskmaster, then Pharaoh, and even his own brethren? I believe that Moses’ life was shaped by the independent and cooperative will of six brave women. Each makes a choice that ultimately contributes to the redemption of our people. These brave, righteous women – or perhaps “women of justice” would be a better title – would not give up their principles and moral obligations and, thus, secured the future of the Jewish People.
My dear friends, each day we too have choices to make, even those of us whose names don’t appear in newspapers. Every day we can participate in miracles if we act boldly, if we take risks, if we believe in something bigger than ourselves. On these decisions, the future of our people still stands.
Once upon a time, a great man and important leader emerged because of the courage of a mother, the chutzpah of a sister, the moral indignation of two midwives, compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, and the commitment of a wife. The heroic deeds of these six women who refused to lose hope in humanity in the face of great adversity guaranteed not only the Exodus but also the unique moral sensitivity of the Jewish People that puts us at the forefront of the battle for social justice and equality today. And so, I think that the message of Sh’mot is that these women behind the man were really often beside the man and even in front of the man. And now, it’s our turn.
The creativity of Rabbis Haim Ovadia, Mindy Portnoy, and Jack Riemer
informed this message, and I am grateful to all of them.