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 Women Breaking The Rules #761

01/13/2023 05:29:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Shemot: 
"If not for the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt."  Passover Haggadah  
women Breaking the Rules

It is no secret that within the Torah, or within most organized religions, men receive most of the attention.

 Often, the Bible’s narrative is presented through men’s eyes—Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Saul, David, Solomon, among many others.

 And too often, women are presented in terms of their ability to procreate.

 But if we delve a bit deeper, it becomes apparent that frequently, women, not men, truly control the narrative, and in doing so, the continuity of the Jewish people.

 As we sit around the Passover table, one Biblical character commands our attention from the moment he is born: Moses.

 He, his brother Aaron, and the Egyptian king engage in a Biblical standoff ultimately leading to the liberation of the Israelites.

Moses is credited with parting Sea of Reeds. Moses receives and presents the Ten Commandments

We begin reading the story of the Exodus this week as part of our annual journey through the Five Books of Moses. We will reread the story next April during Passover.

 But if we reflect upon this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot (Names), it becomes apparent that the Passover story has less to do with Moses and more to do with six women, without whom there would be no Jewish people.

They are Miriam and Yochevet, Puah and Shiphrah, Batya and Tzipora.

 Each of them broke rules, defied authority and stepped up when men did not.

 Here are their stories.

 We begin with Miriam and Yochevet.

 The Torah tells that a new king came to power in Egypt who did not about Joseph, and how he helped Egypt avoid famine. Pharaoh is more concerned that the Israelites will align with Egypt’s enemies and overthrow his regime.

 Not only does he enslave the Israelites, but he also decrees that newborn Israelite males be thrown into the Nile.

 Yochevet and Amram, Miriam’s parents, consider divorce, since they can’t bear the thought of a future son being murdered.

 But Miriam intervenes. According to the Talmud, she tells her father, “You are worse than Pharaoh. Pharaoh only threatens males, but you eliminate the possibility of any child.”

 Yochevet conceives and gives birth to Moses.

After three months, when Moses can no longer be hidden, Miriam arranges to have him sent floating down the Nile in a basket while she keeps watch.

Let us consider that without Miriam and Yochevet, there would be no Moses. There would be no Jewish people.

Puah and Shiphrah are also introduced in this week’s Torah portion.

They are midwives ordered by Pharaoh to ensure that all Jewish newborn males are drowned.

But in an act of remarkable civil disobedience, they and the other midwives refuse to comply. Puah and Shiphrah convince Pharaoh that the Jewish women are too “vigorous.”

“Before the midwives can come to them, they give birth,” Puah and Shiphrah claim. (Exodus 1:19)

Pharaoh buys the explanation.

Without Puah, Shiphrah, and the other midwives, there would be no Moses. There would be no Jewish people.

Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, notices Moses’ basket drifting down the Nile and commands her servants to lift it from the water. She notices that the baby is Jewish, but takes him in, and brings Yochevet into Pharaoh’s court to nurse the child.

Without Batya there would be no Moses. There would be no Jewish people. Moses escapes to the desert after killing an Egyptian taskmaster for whipping an Israelite slave. There, he meets and marries Tzipora.

But Moses appears distracted. It seems he has lost faith. As my mentor, the late Rabbi Joe Ehrenkranz posited, “Moses had given up hope on the future of the Jewish people.”

Tzipora eventually gives birth to the couple’s first child, Gershom—translated as “a stranger there.” But Moses is nowhere to be found.

He is apparently looking for lodging and seems disinterested in Gershom’s circumcision. The boy’s bris is performed by his mother.

Moses appears rejuvenated by this act of faith and agrees to return to Egypt to seek the liberation of the Jewish people; Tzipora gives him hope.

Without Tzipora where would be no next generation. There would be no Jewish people.

As we consider the actions of these six women, we witness their refusal to bow to male authority. And, when men appear ready to give up, they persevere.

They are joined by other women of courage. We are told that when the Israelite women brought meals to their husbands in the field, they also “comforted them.”

The Torah tells us that without their courage, the Israelites would not have “multiplied and increased greatly.” (Exodus 1:20)

Notes the Passover Haggadah, as it breaks from the Torah’s male bias: “Through the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt.”

Miriam, Yochevet, Puah, Shiphrah, Batya, Tzipora and the women of Israel are the true heroes of the Passover story.

That is one reason why, in addition to the Cup of Elijah, many families, during the Passover Seder, now pour a cup dedicated to "Miriam and the Women." We call this Miriam’s Cup.

At our congregational Seder, we pour a few drops from each of our water glasses into one central cup, paying tribute not only to the women of the Passover story, but also to those women in our lives—present and past—whose strength, intelligence and tenacity made it possible for our families to thrive and grow.

Who was that strong woman in your life? In this week’s Torah portion, we recognize that in ancient times, and even today, women do not always receive top billing, although they are often the true influencers in our lives.

They are not nameless. They have made us who we are. We bless them and we remember them.

On this Shabbat—the Shabbat that notes many names—let their names come off of our lips.

For without them, there would be no Jewish people.

Without them, there would be no you and me.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784