This week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot – Exodus. The book of Shemot begins with the Jewish people’s slavery and redemption from Egypt, concluding with the completion of the Tabernacle.
Despite Moshe and Aharon receiving most of the attention (along with G-d!) for freeing the Jews from Egypt, others played crucial roles in the exodus, namely, women. Revealing their role in the freedom process gives us a greater appreciation for them individually and for the contributions of all women in general.
Early on, when Pharaoh had just decided that he wanted to reduce the number of Jews in Egypt, he attempted to do it secretively by employing the services of the midwives who were instructed to kill the infant boys. Since babies occasionally die at birth, no one would suspect the conspiracy. The Torah says (Exodus 1:15-17):
ספר שמות פרק א
(טו) וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַמְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת אֲשֶׁר שֵׁם הָאַחַת שִׁפְרָה וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית פּוּעָה
(טז) וַיֹּאמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת הָעִבְרִיּוֹת וּרְאִיתֶן עַל הָאָבְנָיִם אִם בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ וְאִם בַּת הִוא וָחָיָה
(יז) וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וְלֹא עָשׂוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ אֶת הַיְלָדִים
15) The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, of whom the name of the first was Shifrah and the name of the second was Puah, – 16) “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, kill him, and if it is a daughter, let her live.” 17) But the midwives feared HaShem and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live.
Who were Shirah and Puah? The Sages teach us that they are nicknames for Yocheved (Moshe and Aharon’s mother) and Miriam (their older sister). Shifrah comes from the word “to beautify.” Because Yocheved would clean and beautify the babies, she was called Shifrah and Miriam would “pu” and make other calming noises to the babies to quiet them down, so she was called Puah.
But not only did they defy Pharaoh by not killing the baby boys, they even helped the babies to live. In direct violation of the king’s order, they risked getting killed for it. Indeed, when confronted by Pharaoh, they “explained” that they couldn’t reach the Jewish women before they gave birth. As a reward for their heroic deeds, HaShem rewarded them by causing the Jewish nation to proliferate even more. As it says in the verse (Exodus 1:20),
(כ) וַיֵּיטֶב אֱלֹהִים לַמְיַלְּדֹת וַיִּרֶב הָעָם וַיַּעַצְמוּ מְאֹד
20) HaShem benefited the midwives, and the nation became numerous and strong.
Their greatest possible reward was that the Jewish mothers would have more and more babies for them to deliver.
The Chofetz Chaim explains that the midwives’ fear of HaShem was manifest by their not resigning their positions, concerned as they were, that perhaps a lesser person would take the position and actually kill the baby boys. Therefore, the kept their positions and did not kill the babies, instead, helping them to live.
They also received a personal reward for their great fear of HaShem. The verse (21) tells us,
(כא) וַיְהִי כִּי יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם בָּתִּים
21) Because the midwives feared HaShem, He made them houses.
What are these “houses?” Rashi quotes the Midrash that says that the houses were houses of Cohanim, Levites, and kings. The Cohanim and Levites came from Yocheved through her husband Amram, Levi’s grandson. Their sons were thus Levites, and Aharon became first Cohen. Kings came from Miriam because King David was her descendant. Through their fear of HaShem, these women merited that their descendants be the leaders of the Jewish people. The Cohanim and Levites were the spiritual leaders, and the kings were in charge of all the nation’s affairs. The connection is very simple and clear. A leader’s most important quality is a strong fear of HaShem so that he doesn’t compromise the interests of his subjects for his own petty or selfish reasons. Yocheved and Miriam endowed all their progeny with this quality of fear of HaShem, which would empower their children to lead the people to serve HaShem faithfully.
This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, describes the beginning of the slavery and the beginning of the salvation through the birth of the protagonist Moshe. In looking into the events that lead up to the final redemption, we discover many places where women were at the source of the salvation.
The freedom process began with Moshe’s birth, yet the Torah quite cryptically describes it (Exodus 2:1):
ספר שמות פרק ב
(א) וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי
1) And a man from the house of Levi married the daughter of Levi.
The continuing verses tell us that she became pregnant and gave birth to a child who lit up the room. This child was Moses.
What’s the story behind this mysterious marriage? Our sages explain that the nameless people in the verse are Amram and Yocheved who were previously married, divorced, and now remarried. When Pharaoh decreed that all male babies must be thrown into the river, Amram divorced his wife thinking that it was unethical to have children only to have them thrown into the river. When he did this, the rest of the people followed his example, because he was the nation’s leader.
Amram’s five – year old daughter, Miriam, then said to him, “Father, your decree is worse than Pharaoh’s! His applies only on the boys; but your decree applies to the boys and to the girls.” After hearing what his young daughter said, he recapitulated and remarried his wife. When he did this, the rest of the nation followed.
Here is the first instance where a young woman, Miriam, was involved in the freedom from Egypt. If not for her clear thinking and question to her father, who knows what would have happened.
There is a nice aside here that a student thought of. Amram, the greatest Jew of the time and leader of the people, humbled himself and took the advice of his five-year old daughter; as a result, he fathered the man whom the Torah called the humblest man on the face of the earth, Moshe.
The Torah goes on to tell how Moshe was born and hidden for three months.
ספר שמות פרק ב
(ב) וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי טוֹב הוּא וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלשָׁה יְרָחִים:
- The woman (Yocheved, Moshe’s mother) conceived and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was good and she hid him for three months:
What does “she saw that he was good” mean? Doesn’t every mother see her child as special and good? There was something extraordinary about this child. Rashi explains that he lit up the whole room. The Midrash tells us further that Moshe was born circumcised. This was obviously a very holy child destined for greatness, who would escape Pharaoh’s evil decree to kill all Jewish baby boys.
When his parents could hide him no longer, they put him in a basket in the river, hoping someone would find him and have mercy on him. Miriam had prophesied that her parents would give birth to the savior of the Jewish nation and was sure that something miraculous would happen to her special baby brother. Therefore, she stationed herself nearby among the reeds to see how the events would unfold. It didn’t take long. Indeed, of all people, Pharaoh’s daughter Batya discovered the basket when she went to bathe. She immediately realized that he was a Jewish baby trying to escape her father’s harsh decree. This could easily have become a disaster, because, as the daughter of the Pharaoh, she could have felt an obligation to kill the child in compliance with her father’s evil decree. But when she saw the glow of the child, her compassion overwhelmed her and she decided to save him and raise him in the palace. This was a miracle.
She named the child Moshe, which means “I drew him from the water.” Interestingly, even though Moshe’s parents had given him a name at birth, the name Moshe given to him by Batya, is the name that HaShem used. This is to recognize her kindness in saving him from death.
We thus have a second woman who played a crucial role in the freedom of the Jewish people, and we are reminded of her every time we mention the name Moshe that she gave him.
After Pharaoh’s daughter saved Moshe, Miriam came through for him again, because, at three -months old, a child’s only food is his mother’s milk. Because he was such a holy soul, he refused to nurse from any of the Egyptian wet nurses, it being inappropriate to drink the milk of a woman who ate non-kosher food as the source of her milk. What could Batya do? The child would not nurse. Miriam, who witnessed the developments, came forth and asked, “Shall I go and summon for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew nation, who will nurse the boy for you?” Upon receiving an affirmative answer, Miriam called Yocheved, Moshe’s mother to nurse him. Batya also paid Yocheved for her services.
Here again, Miriam played a crucial role in the life of Moshe our savior.
* * * *
Generally, women are exempt from performing positive commandments that are time sensitive. Sitting in a sukkah, which is only a mitzvah for the seven days of Sukkot, or wearing tzitzit which is only a mitzvah during the day, are examples of time sensitive commandments.
But what about drinking the four cups at the Pesach seder? That is one of the exceptions to this rule. Why? The Talmud, discussing the rules of the Passover Seder, (Pesachim 108b) explains:
ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו שאף הן היו באותו הנס
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “Women are obligated to drink the four cups of wine (at the Passover Seder) for even they were involved in the miracle of the salvation.
The Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) comments on this passage of Talmud:
שאף הן היו באותו הנס – כדאמרינן (סוטה יא, ב) בשכר נשים צדקניות שבאותו הדור נגאלו, וכן גבי מקרא מגילה, נמי אמרינן הכי, דמשום דעל ידי אסתר נגאלו, וכן גבי נר חנוכה במסכת שבת (כג, א):
For even they were involved in the miracle… this refers to the Talmud (Sotah 11a), which says “In the merit of the righteous women who lived then, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt.” The same applies to hearing the Megillah, because it was through Esther that they were saved, and, so, to Chanukah (through Yehudit).
According to this interpretation, the reason women are obligated to perform these three time-sensitive mitzvot (1) drinking the four cups of wine, (2) hearing the Megillah read, and (3) lighting Chanukah candles, is because women were the ones who brought about the Jewish people’s salvation.
Esther was the source of the Purim miracle, and Yehudit had her role in the Chanukah story, yet our statement is that “In the merit of the righteous women who lived then, the Jews were redeemed from Egypt.” How was that? Here is what the Talmud says:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף יא/ב
דרש רב עוירא: בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור נגאלו ישראל ממצרים. בשעה שהולכות לשאוב מים, הקדוש ברוך הוא מזמן להם דגים קטנים בכדיהן ושואבות מחצה מים ומחצה דגים ובאות ושופתות שתי קדירות, אחת של חמין ואחת של דגים ומוליכות אצל בעליהן לשדה ומרחיצות אותן וסכות אותן ומאכילות אותן ומשקות אותן ונזקקות להן בין שפתים
Rabbi Avira taught. In the merit of the righteous women of that generation the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. When the women drew water from the well, HaShem would bring small fish into their buckets such that they drew half water and half fish. They would divide their catch into two pots, put them on the stove, making one hot water and the other cooked fish. They would then take the two pots to their husbands in the fields where they had just finished a grueling day of work and were tired and spent. They would wash them with the hot water, feed them the fish, and give them to drink.
The Midrash (Tanchuma Pekudei 9) adds another interesting point of information to the story.
נוטלות המראות ומביטות בהן עם בעליהן זאת אומרת אני נאה ממך וזה אומר אני נאה ממך ומתוך כך היו מרגילין עצמן לידי תאוה ופרין ורבין
The women would also take mirrors out with them and look at themselves with their husbands in the mirrors, and banter with them to interest their husbands in them.
The tender loving care that the women gave their husbands strengthened them and gave them the moral support they so desperately needed. In turn, this fostered great love for their wives which caused many new children to be born. This is how they brought about the redemption, for there needed to be a certain number of souls who would comprise the Jewish nation before they could be redeemed. Their conduct with their husbands brought forth those critical numbers.
Once again, we see that the fortitude and strength of the women carried the day. Without their optimism and intervention, it would have taken much longer, and maybe, by that time, they would have been too far gone to be redeemed.
The Midrash adds an interesting aside. It notes that when Moshe later called for donations for the Tabernacle’s construction, the women donated their precious mirrors. Initially, Moshe wanted to reject them as a tool of vanity and the basis for much evil, and, hence, unsuitable for the Tabernacle. But HaShem told Moshe,
א”ל הקב”ה למשה: משה על אלו אתה מבזה? המראות האלו הן העמידו כל הצבאות הללו במצרים טול מהן ועשה מהן כיור נחשת וכנו לכהנים שממנו יהיו מתקדשין הכהנים
“You are disgracing these mirrors? They are what brought forth all the multitudes of souls in Egypt. Take them and make them into a copper laver (urn for washing) for the Cohanim to sanctify themselves with before they begin their holy service.”
We learn a great lesson from this Midrash, viz, a woman using a mirror to beautify herself for her husband is holy.
With so many instances of women playing crucial roles in the exodus, why isn’t more of a deal made of it? Why aren’t these women more widely publicized for their actions?
You may notice a common thread that weaves through all the above-cited examples of women who made a difference. They all happened behind the scenes, with no fanfare. These women were just going about their daily business doing the right thing at every turn. They were not looking for notoriety or attention, it was doing what needed to be done at that point in time.
Here lies the real power of a woman. She is the one behind the scenes making sure things get done and done right, but she wants no fame or glory for it. She derives her satisfaction from knowing that she has been the one who got everything done behind the scenes, but doesn’t need any notoriety for it. This derives from the inherent modesty in a woman and what is described in the verse (Psalms 45:14):
(יד) כָּל כְּבוּדָּה בַת מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה
14) Every honorable princess dwells within
In summary, if not for the women in the story of the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish nation might not be where it is today. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the great women who played such a critical role in the exodus.
Things have not changed. Women are making crucial differences in their families and communities today just as they did in the past.