Parshat Shemot: The Power of Strong Women
The Book of Exodus starts with the enslavement of the Israelites. Up to this moment, the Torah has been following the lives of individuals — the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The women were, as in all societies then, either subservient or restricted in their capacity to act or express their individuality.
In the new phase that begins the Book of Exodus, the “Sons of Israel” have become a people, the nation of Israel, known to the Egyptians as Hebrews. They have been enslaved. In this position, it is the males who come under the most physical pressure as the laborers of the Egyptians. They have been humiliated and psychologically damaged, as we continue to see throughout the narrative of the next 40 years after the Exodus.
At this moment, the dynamic role of women emerges. Pharaoh wants to reduce the number of Israelites, and decrees that all Hebrew male babies should be killed at birth.
Two Hebrew midwives — Shifra and Pua — worked to undermine Pharaoh’s command and find excuses for not obeying orders. Given what we know about autocratic rulers, they must have been extremely strong to have risked their lives. Yet they did not flinch, and got away with it.
Pharoah then forbade the Hebrews to reproduce. He turned to the general population to carry out his orders and kill every newborn Israelite child. Yocheved of the Tribe of Levi, who had separated from her husband to avoid conceiving, decided to defy the orders and gave birth to a child. But she feared his crying might attract the attention of the Egyptians, and so she put the child into a waterproofed ark and hid it amongst the bulrushes along the river Nile. The child’s sister Miriam placed herself nearby to protect him and see what happened.
Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe with her servants, and hearing the sound of a child crying, retrieved the baby and discovered it to be a Hebrew child. In a remarkable act of defiance to her father, she took the child to adopt. Miriam dared approach the princess, and negotiated to have the child nursed by its birth mother, and when he was weaned, to bring him back to the palace. Four strong women played a crucial role in preserving Jewish life.
The rabbis of the Midrash reiterate the significant role of women in maintaining the morale of their husbands as they struggled under the lash of their taskmasters.
Miriam herself would become a prophetess, and one of the leaders of the Israelites on their journey through the desert. Remarkably, Pharaoh’s daughter supported Moses in his choice to identify with the Hebrews. But when this conflicted with his Egyptian upbringing, he fled to Midian. He married a priest’s daughter, Tsiporah. She committed herself to his mission to return to Egypt. And on the way there, she saved his life (Exodus 4.24).
All this makes a crucial point about the role of women (and family) in preserving the Jewish tradition. This is a remarkable tribute to the power of women. It is why the home in Judaism is more important than the synagogue.
Throughout much of human history, male chauvinism has suppressed women and controlled the narrative. It still does in over half the world. But women and the home are the crucible of Jewish identity, character, and tradition.
Jeremy Rosen is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.