Women and the Redemption
It is written in the Torah: “The Israelites were fertile and prolific, and their population increased” (Exodus 1:7). All of this was accomplished while guarding their unique identity and faith that God would remember and return them to their holy land to establish a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The Egyptians had a choice: They could encourage Israel’s vision to return to their land, and even assist them – as remuneration for all the good they received in the merit of Yosef and the Israelites. Egotistically, however, the Egyptians chose to view this as a threat. Why don’t the Israelites assimilate into our culture, they thought to themselves? The Egyptians couldn’t understand this. Thus began the insufferable slavery – whose goal was twofold: to exploit Israel’s manpower for wealth, and also to strip them of their will to live, dissolve their unique identity, and eradicate them from the world. Towards this purpose, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites oppressively with back-breaking labor. A person who did not work was killed. If he did not work fast enough, he was beaten brutally. When the Egyptians saw that despite all this the Israelites continued to be fruitful and multiply, they hardened the slavery, and for a number of protracted months, forced the men to sleep in the fields where they labored – to prevent them from being with their wives.
The Men Lost Their Will to Live
The hard labor shattered their bodies and humiliated their spirits. How could a husband look into the eyes of his wife? Wasn’t he supposed to take care of her, to protect her from enemies and intimidators, to support and honor her, and to be an example for their children? But here, he was a disgraced slave, subjected to the trampling feet of his oppressor and taskmaster.
In such a situation, men usually lose their will to live. They have no dignity. They are sure that women see them as worthless losers and don’t love them anymore. So as not to confirm these fears and become additionally humiliated, they prefer to distance themselves from their wives. Moreover, in such a situation, men certainly do not want to have more children. Why have more kids? So they also can become humiliated slaves?!
The crucial question was: What would the women do?
Will the Women Submit?
In those times, the daughters of a nation defeated in battle made every effort to join the winning side. If their men were not capable of protecting them and their children, or providing them with honor and a livelihood, it was preferable for them to try their luck with the victorious men. At that time, it was customary for the wealthy and strong conquerors to marry a number of women. Consequently, even if the victors were already married, hope existed that they would take an additional wife from the defeated nation. Therefore, women on the losing side usually agreed to be more subservient and industrious.
Women should not be criticized for this – it was a requirement of survival. Most likely parents even encouraged their daughters act accordingly, because this was the only way to guarantee a better future and continuation of their family. In this way, all the defeated nations disappeared off the stage of history. The women joined the conquerors, the men were taken into slavery, and after the last of them died, there remained no one to recall the past of the nation that once was.
It could have been expected that in Egypt as well, most of the Israelite women would make every effort to find favor in the eyes of the well-off Egyptian men, joining them in order to find a new life for themselves. Apparently, the Egyptians also hoped that the Israelite women would yearn for them –anticipating the disappearance of the Hebrew nation.
In the Merit of Righteous Women
However, the spark of the Israeli soul had not been extinguished. It endured in the merit of the women who remained loyal to their husbands. Despite their husbands being humiliated as slaves, the women continued to believe in them, to see the good within them, and to honor and love them. This is what our Sages have said (Sotah 11b):
“In the merit of righteous women of the generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.”
Seeing that the Egyptians did not allow their husbands to return home after laboring strenuously, the women would draw water from the wells to heat up for their husbands. God sent small fish into the wells, and the women would place two pots on the fire – one for hot water, and the other, to cook the fish. They would bring the pots to their husbands in the fields, bathe them, rub them with oil they had found, and feed them.
All of these measures were actually hints: “Maybe the Egyptians see you as a despised slave, but in my eyes, you are dear and important. And just as I would have greeted you happily after coming home from a respectable job, likewise, I come to you today in the field to wash your tired feet and rub your aching body, because you are my husband and my love.”
Mirrors of the Multitudes
Nevertheless, the men were reluctant, all the time recalling how their slave masters beat and humiliated them. They didn’t believe their wives really loved them. Wishing to raise their husband’s spirits, the women would sell a few of the fish and buy some wine. After they ate and drank, the women would take out little mirrors they had brought with them, and look at themselves and their husbands in the mirror. The wife would laugh at the sight of the two of them and say, “I’m prettier than you”, and moved, her husband would reply, “No, I’m prettier than you”. Thus, they would arouse the happiness of love between husband and wife, and God instantaneously made them fruitful and multiply.
The Most Cherished
Generations later, when God asked Moshe to gather contributions for the building of the Tabernacle all of Israel answered the call, and donated. Some brought gold, some silver, while others brought copper or precious stones. The women said: “What can we offer as a donation to the Tabernacle?” They arose, and brought those very mirrors with which they had adorned themselves while visiting their husbands in the fields. And although they dearly cherished the mirrors, due to their great love for holiness, they did not refrain from donating them. Moshe Rabbeinu despised the mirrors seeing as they had been created for the evil inclination. Some commentators say that Moshe even became furious with the women, exaggeratedly exclaiming to those nearby: “Grab sticks and break their legs” — for having had the ‘chutzpah’ to offer those mirrors for the holy service.
God said to Moshe:
“You ridicule those mirrors? Those mirrors established all the multitudes in Egypt! Accept them, for they are my most cherished gift of all. Take and form them into the copper basin and its pedestal, from which the priests sanctify themselves for the holy service” (Tanchuma, Pikudei 9; Rashi, Shmot 38:8).
This comes to teach us there is nothing purer than love that is not dependent on a specific factor, and brings life into the world.
Give Praise to the Righteous Women of Our Generation
Just as in the past, in the merit of the righteous women of our times who, with endless love and devotion, and while facing tremendous difficulties and influences from all directions nevertheless nurture large families – Israel continues to be redeemed. They strengthen their love for their husbands, and in this atmosphere, raise their children. They rise early in the morning to straighten-up the house, and to wake-up their children for kindergarten or school. They lose sleep while worrying about their children’s education. Day-in and day-out, they get up in the morning to face all the work and burdens, bringing groceries home, and pleasing their children with all sorts of foods and dishes. And all this is done with love, out of a great faith that life is good, and nothing is more precious than adding life to the world. And as is written in the poem Eshet Chayil:
“Her children rise (upon rising in the morning and finding everything prepared for them, her children will express their thankfulness to her – Ibn Ezra) and make her fortunate; her husband – and he praises her…Give her the fruit of her hand, and let her deeds praise her in the gates.”
And when the good angels who accompany their husband’s home from the synagogue on Shabbat evening arrive, they see all the effort the women toiled before Shabbat – cleaning the house, preparing the food, laundering everybody’s clothes, and dressing them all – young and old. The angels gaze in the tired faces of the righteous women, and say: “May it be God’s will that it be so next Shabbat”, as is written in the Talmud (Shabbat 119b). They then exclaim: “In the merit of these righteous women, Israel will be redeemed,” and the evil angels are compelled to answer ‘amen’.
This article appeared in the ‘Basheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.