Jewish Journal


January 6, 2010

Women of Justice

Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)


The Exodus was made possible because of the merits of the righteous women, say our sages. Some interpret this statement as a patronizing approach to women in the spirit of the famous dictum: Behind every great man there is a great woman. But this relegates women to the sidelines and renders them nothing more than hidden tools, helping pave the way for their husband’s success.

Others view it in light of the midrash that describes the Israelite women who, despite the difficult circumstances and persecutions, fought for the right to have children and guarantee the continuity of the Hebrew nation. This view also might present some problem to those of us who want to see a greater role for women than just as deliverer of new life, as noble as this role is. And there are those who twist the rabbinic statement and say that the Israelites left Egypt earlier than planned because whereas the divine decree called for their enslavement during the day, their wives left house chores for them, thus enslaving them at night and cutting their 400-year sentence by almost half.

The true meaning of what the rabbis say is that the heroic deeds of five women — who rose to the challenge and refused to lose hope and humanity in face of the greatest adversities — are those who guaranteed not only the Exodus, but also the unique moral awareness of the Jewish people that puts us at the forefront in the battle for social justice and equality today.

To understand the first two of these five women, let’s eavesdrop on the emergency meeting of the Union of Midwives of Egypt (UME):

Shifra: “As chairman of the union, I call for approval of the motion by our colleague Puah to react with civil disobedience to the inhumane decrees of the tyrant Pharaoh. It is true, as some of dear sisters argued, that we are risking our lives and the lives of our families, but killing an innocent and helpless human being, be it a Hebrew, an Egyptian or a Canaanite, is simply wrong. It does not matter whether it is an adult, a newborn baby or a dying patient, we cannot take part in that hideous crime. And as for those who argued that we have no power against Pharaoh’s armies, unto them I say, let his soldiers come and deliver the baby, we have no excuse to commit murder. If more citizens will join our cause, maybe one day we will be able to abolish slavery. But if we choose to cooperate with the establishment and claim that we are mere tools in the hands of a powerful monarch, who knows to what lows the human race will be able to sink in the future under the pretext of following orders.”

The motion, as we all know, was approved and carried out. Pharaoh gave up his plans of a covert operation and had to employ his army and collaborating civilians.

Here again he hit a wall of resistance. That of a mother and sister who would not give up and would try to preserve their baby’s life against all odds. Imagine the anxiety of a mother, hushing her crying baby for three months so the searching parties will not be able to find him. But more than that, imagine the courage of Miriam, hiding among the reeds to watch over her baby brother, floating in a fragile basket on the mighty Nile. Think of her chutzpah, rushing to the Egyptian princess and offering to hire for her the services of a Hebrew wet nurse, exposing herself as a criminal and relying on the good will and compassion she is able to arouse in the princess’ heart.

And finally, try to visualize the scene that unfolded that day in the royal Egyptian palace.

Pharaoh: “Are you out of your mind, girl? How dare you bring a Hebrew baby into my palace when I declared them as my mortal enemies? You will hand this baby right now to my royal guard.”

Princess: “It’s always the same. You never care about me. It is only you, you, you and your stupid decrees. All you care about is what people think of you. Osiris forbid people think you are weak or loving or capable of any human emotions. You know I always wanted a baby, and I can’t have one of my own. The gods sent me this one and I intend to keep him. And if you wish to defy the gods’ will, let all their wrath unleash against you.”

Pharaoh’s daughter got her wish and kept the baby, who grew up to become the redeemer of Israel, the justice warrior. Who were his mentors? From where did he take the courage necessary to face the taskmasters, Pharaoh and even his own brethren?

He took it from Shifra and Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Five brave women, righteous women. Or maybe a better translation would be “Women of Justice,” who would not give up their principles of justice and moral obligation and who secured the future of the Jewish people.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue, and a faculty member with the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. He can be reached via e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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