Time magazine’s “Person of the Year, 2017” is not a person, but a group of people: the “Silence Breakers.” These are the many courageous women who have challenged power and exposed the improper and demeaning behavior of men who have harassed and victimized women and others who feel powerless to defend themselves.
The influence of these women has been felt globally, and their empowering voices are echoing in the attentive ears not only of adults but of children too. One Time magazine interviewee summarized the impact of the Silence Breakers saying, “I want to show [my 11-year-old daughter] that it’s OK to stand up for yourself, even though you feel like the world is against you,” says Dana Lewis, a hotel hospitality coordinator who is suing her employer over the actions of a serial groper. “If you keep fighting, eventually you’ll see the sun on the other side.” Or as artist and activist Rose McGowan put it, “Why not fight back? What else are we doing?”
I think about these women as we approach Parashat Shemot where we read about a handful of bold women who saved an entire people because they dared to speak up. Had these biblical Silence Breakers not challenged the status quo and defied authority, Moshe would not have been born or, at the very least, would not have been kept alive. He would not have grown to challenge authority, himself, and take up the cause of the oppressed and harassed.
In the sisterhood of biblical Silence Breakers were first and foremost the Egyptian midwives Shifrah and Puah. They refused to comply with Pharaoh’s order to murder every newborn Hebrew male. These two individuals led a movement of women who refused to follow the immoral orders of the king even if it meant sacrificing their own lives. They feared no one but their own conscience.
The biblical Silence Breakers included Pharaoh’s daughter who took compassion on, rescued, named, and eventually adopted the future redeemer of the Hebrew nation. Imagine what it must have been like on the day she returned to the Egyptian palace and explained to her father-king that she wanted to raise a Hebrew son! Her chutzpah overpowered the most powerful man in the empire.
I also think of Miriam in this regard. Miriam challenged her parents who were going to stop having children because they did not want to take a risk in bring a male child into the world only to be condemned to death. She convinced them not to play God and not give Pharaoh a victory. She spoke up and, as a result, Moshe was born, and the seeds of redemption were planted.
I include Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who suckled Moshe on behalf of Pharaoh’s daughter and who, according to the midrash, bravely and surreptitiously instructed Moshe that he was part of a special people with a special heritage and mandate. It was because of Yocheved that he felt a certain kinship to the Hebrew slaves and eventually took up their cause.
Also a member of this sisterhood is Tzippora, Moshe’s wife, who warded off a mysterious divine attacker as she and her family headed down to Egypt. Likely unconventional for women in those days, she circumcised her son and demonstrated to the angel of death that she and her family were part of a covenantal people worthy of redemption.
The rabbis were right in saying that the women in the Exodus story were responsible for saving the Jewish people. They spoke up and stood up when others did not, and because of them the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt (Sota 11b).
Likewise, today’s Silence Breakers are standing up to power. They are fearlessly declaring that what is acceptable is unacceptable. They are exposing what others have tried to cover up. They are saying what others have kept secret.
Perhaps they will have a similar impact on our world as our biblical matriarchs. They may redeem our society or at least make us worthy of redemption.