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Without Women, There is No Story #706

12/24/2021 05:32:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Sh'mot
“Through the merits of the righteous women of that generation, the Israelites were redeemed.” (Passover Haggadah)

Without Women, There is No Story

There is a misconception within Judaism that, too often, women are ignored.

There is a strong case for that. For example, within the Torah — few can name Noah’s wife. She is formally referred to as Ishto, roughly translated as Mrs. Noah.

And what is the name of Samson’s mother? She is known in the Book of Judges as Mrs. Manoah. Often in the Torah, perhaps reflecting the times, women are positioned under the wings of their husbands.

Yet, in so many other instances, the Torah provides us with examples of strong, powerful, reflective women, who play vital roles in ensuring Jewish survival. 

These include Rebecca, Sarah, Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Rachel, Hannah and Deborah — to name a few.

But perhaps no Torah portion emphasizes the courage, conviction and foresight displayed by women, as much as the beginning of the Book of Exodus, which we start to read this week.

The details of the Jewish Exodus are storied. Around the Passover table each year, we celebrate the Jewish liberation from Egypt. Director Cecil B. DeMille devoted almost four hours to the Exodus in his 1956 classic, The Ten Commandments.

Yet, as we study, celebrate and reflect upon the biblical story which occurred perhaps 3,350 years ago, it becomes apparent that while the Torah often focuses on its male characters — particularly Moses — none of this would have ever happened, if not for the courage of six individual women.

Dare we say that without the heroism of these six, and tens of thousands like them, none of us would be reading this today?

So, let us dial the Torah back a bit, and ask a simple question: How did Moses get there in the first place?

We begin with his mother, Yochevet. Ignoring Pharaoh’s edict targeting Jewish babies for death — and while many couples were divorcing — she and Amram decided, when challenged by their daughter, Miriam, to reunite and have a third child.

Without Yochevet’s labor, Moses would not have been born.

The fact that Yochevet gave birth in the first place was due to the courage of two women, Puah and Shifrah, who were the original “Call the Midwife.” 

When Pharaoh commanded Puah, Shifrah and other midwives to throw Jewish male newborns into the Nile, they refused, insisting that the Israelite women were too “vigorous” and gave birth too quickly. Pharaoh accepted the explanation.

This is perhaps the Torah’s first example of civil disobedience. Without the strength and conviction of Egypt’s midwives, Moses would never have been born.

Then, Miriam helped place Moses’ life in motion. When Moses’ parents pondered separation, our oral tradition records Miriam approaching her father saying, “You are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only threatens males; you eliminate the possibility of any child.”

Miriam’s parents reverse course and create Moses. It is Miriam who watches over Moses’ basket as it drifts along the Nile. Before and after the Exodus, she serves as Moses’ guardian and advisor.

Without Miriam’s strength, courage and conviction, Moses would have never survived.

It was Thermuthis — otherwise known as Batya — Pharaoh’s daughter, who ultimately rescues Moses from the Nile and raises him as her own — with Yochevet, his natural mother, serving as his wet nurse.

Batya’s compassion, if not her civil disobedience, enables Moses to mature into a morally conscious and humble adult, who would eventually lead the Jewish people out of the Egypt to the Promised Land.

Notes writer Maxine Zeltser, “She is one of the most unexpected heroes of the Hebrew Bible…She had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by her courage.”

Without Batya, Moses would have never grown into adulthood.

And then there is Moses’ wife, Tzipora. After killing the Egyptian taskmaster, Moses retreats to the desert. Then he marries Tzipora, the daughter of Yitro, the priest of Midian. 

My mentor, the late Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, takes note of the fact that when their son, Gershom, was born, it was not Moses — but rather Tzipora — who performs the circumcision.

Rabbi Ehrenkranz notes that while Moses is searching for lodging, his focus does not appear to be on bringing his newborn son into the covenant. He speculates that perhaps, in view of the Israelites' continued slavery, Moses saw no hope, no future for the Jewish people.

However, Tzipora did. Without her, perhaps Moses would have never made it out of the wilderness.

Finally, lets us turn to the Passover Haggadah as it salutes the courage of Jewish women while they supported their husbands.

The Egyptians separated the Jewish men and women “in order to decrease their offspring.” But it is noted, that to counter this edict, when wives brought food to their husbands in the fields, they stayed a little longer. 

Many Jewish children were conceived during these lunch breaks. Notes the Haggadah, “Through the merits of the righteous women of that generation, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt.

This is perhaps one reason why — in recent years — in addition to the Cup of Elijah, many Jewish homes have added the ritual of Miriam’s Cup to the Pesach Seder in tribute to women past and present.

In so doing, we recall the contribution of all women: Our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters. Where would we be without them?

So, this week, as we begin the second book of the Torah, we pause for a moment to reflect upon the women both on the front lines and behind the scenes, who have enabled each of us, individually and collectively, to attain our glory.

The Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus is Sh’mot — names. The Bible sometimes shares with us the names of those who have historically elevated our people. But many who play such vital roles in our tradition remain unnamed or unrecognized in our classrooms or around the Pesach table.

This week — as we remember Yochevet, Puah, Shifrah, Miriam, Batya and Tzipora — we also recall other women upon whose shoulders we stand.

Many of these names have faded over time. But we remember them.

We remember their vision, their courage, their sacrifice and most of all, their love. They have always been — and will continue to be — our life givers and sustainers.

Their memories shall endure in our hearts as long we live. 

Each of them in their own way, is a Person of Valor. 

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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