In the story of Israel’s nation building, men live with existential fear. Moses fears that the Israelites won’t listen to him; he will be irrelevant and defeated. So consuming is the fear that seemingly his fear of man appears greater than his fear of God. Pharaoh fears he will be discovered to be mortal, and thus only defecates in the predawn [Exodus 7:15, Rashi, citing Shemot Rabba 9:8]. Israelite men fear for their gender with Pharaoh’s edict to drown all Israelite boys. They may also fear that their sexuality is stripped away through the cruel policies that solidified the first Jewish genocide.
But the women, voiceless as they mostly are in the text, seem to embody strength and defiance.
In the ancient world in which they live, women are not the power players. Two brothers, Moses and Aaron, are the protagonists. Pharaoh, the villain. The taskmasters, who wield power in Egypt, are all men. Spiritual leaders, such as Yisro (Jethro), are also men.
How do the women — despite slavery and terror — find the courage to write their own and their nation’s narrative?
This independence seems especially insurmountable because in every instance in which a woman is mentioned, she is an auxiliary to a man: his sister, child, or parent. In fact, when a man takes a woman, the immediate verb that follows [Ex. 2:1-2, 21; 6:20-25] has nothing to do with her, but, rather, her function: becoming pregnant, providing offspring. Furthermore, in the population surveys, women are not mentioned at all. On the surface, the woman reads as passive, an object in the man’s world.
Yet, it is the women, it seems, who best understand the irony: In order to survive this genocide, they must increase the population. The women set out to do this with a zealousness that is courageous and dangerous.
We see their razor-sharp focus in the opening story of Shemot, when Shifra and Puah (the midwives) insist to Pharaoh, when he demands an explanation for Israelite growth, that they are not defying his decree, but rather Israelite women are too fast for them at the birthing stone.
Pharaoh must have believed them because his next decree was to make the men’s workload impossibly difficult so that the men, already terrified and beaten down, would be too dispirited to have sex. But the Israelite women would not be deterred. They would beautify themselves with nothing at hand and invite their husbands to gaze, while cradling their men’s shards of dignity, awakening desire, and thus, guaranteeing population growth. [Midrash Rabba Shemot 1:12; Sotah 11b].
Here, the women turned from their passive roles into active players.
The women used their objectification as a source of power. They found power in their powerlessness.
In their fight against fear, through procreation, the women gave hope to themselves and to the men. Shifra and Puah defy Pharaoh’s decree. It wasn’t just the Israelite women who defied the political power. Batya, the Egyptian princess, has compassion for baby Moses, who she saves from death in the Nile. Batya further stands up to patriarchy, literally her own father, naming and raising Moses herself, right under Pharaoh’s nose.
Not only do we see women lead on a national level, but the text also spotlights an intimate family portrait, a mother and son, brought together, and then torn apart by powers larger than themselves.
Tender baby Moses could not have come into the world, according to the Talmud, without the wisdom of his sister Miriam who tells her father that he must remarry his wife. Amram had separated from Yocheved upon hearing Pharaoh’s decree to kill every male baby. Miriam, in her desire to reunite her parents, and defiantly reunite all the Israelite couples who followed Amram and divorced, insists to her father that his act is worse than Pharaoh’s, since Pharaoh was killing the boys but Amram was bringing neither girls nor boys into the world [Sota 12a].
Later, it is Tzipora, the wife of Moses, despite the fact that her father is consulted instead of her about leaving Median, who saves Moses from death, when she spontaneously circumcises their baby.
While the women give hope to their people, they also discover their voices. This comes to its fullest expression when they are finally saved from the Egyptian genocidal machine on the banks of the Red Sea. After Moses completes his song with the nation, Miriam, too, breaks into song and dance leading the women, “I will sing to the Lord…”
Perhaps it is a culmination of Miriam’s development from young daughter to midwife to women’s leader. Perhaps the process of seeking one’s voice is greater than being handed a voice, and thus explains Miriam’s essential and unique role as the provider of water for the liberated and wandering nation.
Temima Goldberg Shulman edits nonfiction narrative and leads the Midrasha in Manhattan, a space for Israelis to re-engage their Jewish identity through text study.
Shabbat Candles: 4:23 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 6:2-9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Havdalah: 5:25 p.m.