Female power and the exodus from Egypt

Efrat, Israel“And Pharaoh commanded his entire nation saying, every male baby born must be thrown into the Nile, while every female baby shall be allowed to live.” [Ex. 1:22]

PARSHAT SHEMOT

In decreeing the destruction of the Israelites in Egypt, why does Pharaoh distinguish between the genders? Apparently afraid to keep the Israelite men alive lest they wage a rebellion against him, Pharaoh is confident that the Israelite women will not pose a threat, as they will presumably marry Egyptian men and assimilate into Egyptian society.

This strategy underscores Pharaoh’s ignorance — or denial — of the pivotal role women play in the development of a nation, and stands in stark contrast to the perspective of our Sages, who declare that it was “in the merit of the righteous Israelite women that the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt” [Midrash Yalkut Shimoni].

The Talmud [Shabbat 118b] teaches, “I always call my wife ‘my home,’” since the real bulwark of the home is the woman of the house. As the Jewish nation emerged from a family and family units are the bedrock of every society, it is clearly the women who are of supreme importance.

Pharaoh was blind to this. Apparently, he had no tradition of matriarchs such as Sarah and Rebecca, who directed the destiny of a national mission. For him, women were the weaker gender who were there to be used and taken advantage of. This is why Pharaoh attempts to utilize the Hebrew midwives to do his dirty work of actually murdering the male babies on the birthstools. To his surprise, the women rebelled: “And the midwives feared the Lord, so they did not do what the king of Egypt told them to do; they kept the male babies alive” (ibid. 1:17).

Taking it one step further, the Talmud [Sotah 11b] identifies the Israelite midwives as Yocheved (the mother of Moses and Aaron) and Miriam (their sister). The Midrash continues that Amram, their husband and father, respectively, was the head of the Israelite court. Upon learning of Pharaoh’s decree to destroy all male babies, he ruled that Israelite couples divorce, in order to cease reproduction. After all, why should people continue normal married life, only to have their baby sons killed?

Miriam chides her father: “Your decree is more harsh than that of Pharaoh! He made a decree only against male babies, but you are making a decree against female babies, as well.” Amram, persuaded by his daughter’s rebuke, remarries Yocheved, who conceives and gives birth to Moses, savior of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

Miriam is actually following in a fine family tradition of fortitude and optimism. Her grandmothers, the mothers of Amram and Yocheved, gave birth to children during the bleakest days of oppression. Despite the slavery and carnage all around, one mother gave her son the name Amram, which means “exalted nation”; the other mother gave her daughter the name Yocheved, which means “glory to God.” Such was their confidence in the potential of the Jewish People and their faith in the Source of their people’s greatness.

These two women were able to look beyond the dreadful state to which the Israelites had fallen in Egypt; their sights were held high, upon the stars of the heavens which God promised Abraham would symbolize his progeny and the Covenant of the Pieces which guaranteed the Hebrews a glorious future in the Land of Israel. These two proud grandmothers from the tribe of Levi merited grandchildren such as Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

Pharaoh begins to learn his lesson when Moses asks for a three-day journey in the desert; Pharaoh wants to know who will go. Moses insists: “Our youth and our old people will go, our sons and our daughters will go—our entire households will go, our women as well as our men” [ibid. 10:8]. A wiser Pharaoh will now only allow the men to leave; he now understands that he has most to fear from the women!

And so it is no wonder that Passover, the festival of our freedom, is celebrated in the Torah with “a lamb for each house,” with the women included in the paschal sacrificial meal by name no less than the men. In our time, we find this idea expressed in the observances of the Passover Seder (the drinking of the four cups of wine, the eating of matza, and the telling of the story of the exodus, etc.), which are binding on women no less than men.

A post-script

One of my strongest childhood memories take place at a Seder at the home of my maternal grandparents. The entire family, including the seven married children of my grandparents as well as their children, comprised well over fifty participants, My grandfather led the entire gathering in the reading of the Haggadah word for word; when anyone had a question about any of the passages, he/she was encouraged to ask. My grandfather would then always defer to my grandmother to give the answer, because he greatly respected the fact that she had learned Talmud with her father, the Dayan (rabbinical court judge) Rav Shlomo Kowalsky. Indeed, during the Seder, when my grandmother would go into the kitchen to check on the pots of food, my grandfather would stop the Haggadah reading until my grandmother re-joined us at the table, and only then would the Seder continue.

About the Author
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men's and women's institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU. (Photo credit: Chaim Snow)
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