In English, the book of Shemot is called Exodus, after the exodus from Egypt. In Hebrew it is known as the book of “Names.” Significantly, in this opening parsha, there is a glaring absence of names. No names are given to the midwives, the parents of Moshe, his sister or the daughter of Pharaoh.
These people are unidentified, reflecting the anonymous and totalitarian society in which Moshe is living. Concerned by the rapid growth of the Israelite nation, Pharaoh issues a decree to kill all baby boys, allowing the girls alone to live- ironically underestimating the power of daughters, including his own.
Although Moshe is the main character in Parshat Shemot, there are a series of women who are active in saving his life and subverting Pharaoh and his evil decrees. This list begins with the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh by saving the male babies. Then there is Moshe’s biological mother, who keeps her child concealed for three months, then sends him away. Quite remarkably, she chooses a manner very similar to that which Pharaoh has ordered as an end for the baby boys. But, rather than throwing him in the River Nile, she fashions a box or basket and places him carefully within. Moshe’s sister watches over him and intervenes to arrange for her mother to feed and look after Moshe as an infant. Pharoah’s daughter saves this Israelite baby, defying her father. She gives him the name Moshe and adopts him. Finally we encounter Moshe’s wife Tzipporah, who saves her husband’s life by circumcising their son.
This succession of inspiring women manage through their individual acts of care and attention to change the fabric of society. All too often we want our children to be quiet, obedient and compliant. However, it is important to be willing to challenge authority – not all the time, but when necessary. These courageous women act with initiative and determination to do that which is right, despite the risks and consequences involved.
In her book “Untangled,” a guide to parenting teenage girls, psychologist Lisa Damour has a chapter on contending with adult authority. “It’s healthy for teenage girls to find a way to buck authority- even as they meet or exceed adult standards – and we should worry about girls who never oppose adults.”
Some challenges to authority, including parents, are to be expected and welcomed. However, too much contention is also not a good thing. Damour writes that “healthy teenagers contend with adult authority, but not all of the time.”
Defying Pharaoh was admirable, but that was because of his evil decrees and authoritarian rulership. Damour writes that “teens with authoritative parents- parents who are warm yet firm and emphasize the reasons for rules – consistently take fewer risks than the teens of authoritarian parents who simply lay down the law and try to gain compliance through punishment.” One of the ways we can reduce risky behavior and ease tension is to offer the reasons behind household rules, to spend time discussing with our children why we have these rules, so they spend less time planning how not to get caught when they break them!
May we raise healthy and resilient daughters, and sons.