The four strong women of the Pesach story
Today, I’m combining two of my favorite topics, inspiring women and Pesach. Let’s look at the story of our freedom from slavery through the actions of four strong women.
Recently, I attended, via Zoom, a beautiful women’s seder conducted by Hadassah’s Boston chapter entitled, “Not Your Bubbe’s Seder.” I came away very impressed by the presentation and with the thought that my chapter, Hadassah Greater Detroit, may be doing something similar next year!
One of the four “storytellers” at the seder was the author Anita Diamant and I’m going to be borrowing some themes from her presentation.
Did you know that of the almost 3,000 names mentioned in the Bible, only 10 percent are women’s names? Yet in the beginning of the Pesach story, which features the rescue of Moses, three of the tale’s four prominent women are named – the midwives Shifra and Puah and Miriam, Moses’ sister (although we only learn her name later in the text). Only Pharoah’s daughter is unnamed, but we’ll discuss a midrash about that in a bit.
Shifra and Puah were Hebrew midwives (although there is a view that since they are called “midwives to the Hebrews,” they may have been Egyptian). They have a place in our history because they feared God more than they feared Pharoah. We know there’s a fine line between fear and awe and surely midwives, involved in the work of bringing life into the world, were in awe of God, the creator of that life.
The pair had their instructions from Pharoah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live” (Ex. 1:16). In one of the first recorded acts of civil disobedience, they chose to ignore that order, recognizing it as immoral.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who was chief rabbi of the United Kingdom until his death, noted that it took 3,000 years for what Shifra and Puah did to become enshrined in international law. It was during the Nuremberg trials that the legal principle was recognized that there are some orders that should not be obeyed because they are immoral. In a sense, Shifra and Puah were the foremothers of Ghandi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who have taken a moral stand against an immoral act or system.
Let’s look now at Pharoah’s unnamed daughter. It’s clear from the text that she knows Moses is a Hebrew baby. When her handmaids bring her the basket and she looks in, she says, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” The text also says, “She had compassion on him…” So here is the daughter of the most powerful ruler in the ancient world deciding to defy her father and save a Hebrew child.
We aren’t given any further context, but it appears we have a strong woman horrified by an immoral edict who decides to reject her father’s policy. There is a midrash that names Pharoah’s daughter Batya, daughter of God. The midrash goes further and posits that Batya, by walking into the waters of the Nile, was entering a mikveh and by doing so abandoning idolatry and converting. That is why, the midrash continues, she was one of the righteous women who was able to enter the Garden of Eden (heaven) without dying. (Anita Diamant raised an interesting question about why our rabbis felt compelled to make Pharoah’s daughter a Hebrew when we know that righteousness isn’t confined to one nationality, race or religion.)
Our fourth strong, righteous woman was Miriam, the first woman to be called a prophet in the Bible. She is the unnamed sister of Moses who watches to be sure her baby brother is found in his basket in the Nile, offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby and runs home to tell her mother, assumed to be Yochevet.
While that ends her involvement in the Pesach story, Miriam appears again during the exodus from Egypt, where, together with Moses and Aaron, she guides the Israelite community to freedom. She is the voice of song and praise as she leads the women in rejoicing after the crossing of the Red Sea. She inspires great loyalty, as we can see when, despite the instructions of God and Moses, the people refuse to continue the march in the wilderness until Miriam, punished by God with leprosy for challenging Moses, is restored (Num. 12:15).
At many seder tables next week, including mine, there will be a Miriam’s Cup. A 20th-century addition to the ritual objects used at some seder tables, Miriam’s Cup is filled with water to remember the miraculous well that God gave Miriam, the well that followed the Israelites through the desert and dried up upon her death.
So, in our Pesach story, Pharoah’s plans for the annihilation of the Israelite children are defeated by four strong women, Shifra, Puah, Pharoah’s daughter (Batya?) and Miriam, and the moral compass they shared. As we celebrate our delivery from slavery, let’s remember them and the place they hold in our “herstory”! We, the strong women of Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, are proud to carry on their legacy!
I hope you have a wonderful Pesach!