January 8, 2021
This week’s Torah portion, Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), is the beginning of the second book. Exodus; and the story of Moses’ beginning as a leader for the Jewish people. But this is only the surface tale. Just beneath is another far more remarkable story, not about a hero but about six heroines, six courageous women without whom there would not have been a Moses.
First is Yocheved, wife of Amram and mother of the three people who were to become the great leaders of the Israelites: Miriam, Aaron and Moses himself. It was Yocheved who, at the height of Egyptian persecution, had the courage to have a child, hide him for three months, and then devise a plan to give him a chance of being rescued. We know all too little of Yocheved. In her first appearance in the Torah she is unnamed. Yet, reading the narrative, we are left in no doubt about her bravery and resourcefulness. Not by accident did her children all become leaders.
The second was Miriam, Yocheved’s daughter and Moses’ elder sister. It was she who kept watch over the child as the small basket floated down the river, and it was she who approached Pharaoh’s daughter with the suggestion that he be nursed among his own people. The biblical text paints a portrait of the young Miriam as a figure of unusual fearlessness and presence of mind. Rabbinic tradition goes further. In a remarkable Midrash, we read of how, upon hearing of the decree that every male Israelite baby would be drowned in the river, Amram led the Israelites in divorcing their wives so that there would be no more children. He had logic on his side. Could it be right to bring children into the world if there were a fifty per cent chance that they would be killed at birth? Yet his young daughter Miriam, so the tradition goes, argued with him and persuaded him to change his mind. “Your decree,” she said, “is worse than Pharaoh’s. His affects only the boys; yours affects all. His deprives children of life in this world; yours will deprive them of life even in the World to Come.” Amram relented, and as a result, Moses was born. (Exodus Rabbah 1:13) The implication is clear: Miriam had more faith than her father.
Third and fourth were the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who frustrated Pharaoh’s first attempt at genocide. Ordered to kill the male Israelite children at birth, they “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (1:17). Summoned and accused of disobedience, they outwitted Pharaoh by constructing an ingenious cover story: the Hebrew women, they said, are vigorous and give birth before we arrive. They escaped punishment and saved many lives.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) taught, “The significance of this story is that it is the first recorded instance of one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to civilization: the idea that there are moral limits to power. There are instructions that should not be obeyed. There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that “I was only obeying orders.” This concept, generally known as “civil disobedience”, is usually attributed to the nineteenth century American writer Henry David Thoreau and entered international consciousness after the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials. Its true origin, though, lies thousands of years earlier in the actions of two women, Shifra and Puah.” Through their understated courage they earned a high place among the moral heroes of history, teaching us the primacy of conscience over conformity, the law of justice over the law of the land.
The fifth is Tzipporah, Moses’ wife. The daughter of a Midianite priest, she was nonetheless determined to accompany Moses on his mission to Egypt, despite the fact that she had no reason to risk her life on such a hazardous venture. In a deeply enigmatic passage, we see it was she who saved Moses’ life by performing a circumcision on their son (ex. 4:24-26). The impression we gain of her is a figure of monumental determination who, at a crucial moment, had a better sense than Moses himself of what God requires.
The last: Pharaoh’s daughter. It was she who had the courage to rescue an Israelite child and bring him up as her own in the very palace where her father was plotting the destruction of the Israelite people. Could we imagine a daughter of Hitler, or Eichmann, or Stalin, doing the same? There is something at once heroic and gracious about this lightly sketched figure, the woman who gave Moses his name.
Who was she? The Torah does not mention her name. However, the First Book of Chronicles (4:18) references a daughter of Pharaoh, named Batya, and it was she whom the Sages identified as the woman who saved Moses. The name Batya means “the daughter of God”. Our Sages added that she was one of the few people (tradition enumerates nine) who were so righteous that they entered paradise in their lifetime. (Derech Eretz Zuta 1)
So, on the surface, our portion, Shemot, is about the initiation into leadership of one remarkable man, but just beneath the surface is a counter-narrative of six extraordinary women without whom there would not have been a Moses. They belong to a long tradition of strong women throughout Jewish history, from Deborah, Hannah, Ruth and Esther in the Bible to more modern religious figures like Anne Frank, Hannah Senesh and Golda Meir. Let us continue to honor the women in our lives who encourage us to be the best we can be.