Wednesday, March 22nd | 29 Adar 5783

February 3, 2023 11:53 am

How the Exodus Narrative Is a Cry for Femininity

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A Torah scroll. Photo:

Rashi, commenting on this week’s amazing events at the Red Sea, quotes the Midrash (Mechilta 15:22), saying that at the Red Sea, God was seen by the humblest maidservant in a more powerful way than even the greatest of the prophets. What a fascinating and hyperbolic statement. It is meant to convey the magnitude of the Divine intervention for the Israelites.

Immediately after the song led by Moses, Miriam follows it up with an abbreviated version that she led accompanied by musical instruments. There she mentions God’s destruction of the Egyptians. Miriam is one of a series of female heroines in the Exodus narrative. Others include the two midwives who defied Pharaoh, Shifra, and Pua, by refusing to kill Israelite babies at birth; Yocheved, who defied Pharaoh by having a baby and keeping him alive; Pharaoh’s daughter who defied him by adopting the Hebrew child, Moses, and maintaining his Jewish identity; and Zipporah, who saved Moses’s life on the way down from Midian to Egypt.

I think these all represent the female spiritual strength within the Israelite people and their religious culture.

So why compare the vision of a servant, the humblest level of the Hebrew people, to that of the prophets who all had a compelling vision of God?

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Firstly, it implies that everyone from the most important to the least, had an experience of God so powerful that it rose from the lowest to the highest level of spirituality at that moment. Everyone could achieve the summits of religious experience. But then why within days did the people start complaining and demanding to go back to Egypt? What happened to those spiritual heights that they now were rejecting? God and their faith seem to have disappeared.

Humans are fickle, and when things went wrong, they can sometimes only think of their immediate physical difficulties. Perhaps it is because being spiritual is such an intangible and difficult abstraction to come to terms with, that we can only get glimpses of it. This is also why so many of us see Judaism only through the practice of rituals and community, but rarely reach the spiritual experiences that infuse actions with the personal transcendental.

By stressing female spirituality, the Midrash is conveying another dimension of religious experience, the feminine. The mystics say that we are all a combination of the masculine and the feminine. And if we do not make use of female intuition and emotions we will be as inadequate as if we do not add an element of the masculine. Everyone can rise both physically and spiritually. This metaphor of the Hebrew servant shows that in the realms of spirituality, we are all equal.

The author is a writer and rabbi, currently based in New York.

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