In the book of Genesis there were matriarchs – Sara, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah – who were singular women, unique in their generation. What sort of generation came after them? The book of Exodus introduces us to a generation that consists entirely of powerful women. This is our first encounter with a kind of Hebrew wonder woman, who has assumed mythological proportions down through the ages:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַמְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת אֲשֶׁר שֵׁם הָאַחַת שִׁפְרָה וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית פּוּעָה
וַיֹּאמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת הָעִבְרִיּוֹת וּרְאִיתֶן עַל הָאָבְנָיִם אִם בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ וְאִם בַּת הִיא וָחָיָה
וַתִּירֶאןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וְלֹא עָשׂוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֲלֵיהֶן מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ אֶת הַיְלָדִים
וַיִּקְרָא מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַמְיַלְּדֹת וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶן מַדּוּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶן הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה וַתְּחַיֶּיןָ אֶת הַיְלָדִים
וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי לֹא כַנָּשִׁים הַמִּצְרִיֹּת הָעִבְרִיֹּת כִּי חָיוֹת הֵנָּה בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא אֲלֵהֶן הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וְיָלָדוּ
וַיֵּיטֶב אֱלֹהִים לַמְיַלְּדֹת וַיִּרֶב הָעָם וַיַּעַצְמוּ מְאֹד
וַיְהִי כִּי יָרְאוּ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים וַיַּעַשׂ לָהֶם בָּתִּים
Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, "When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live." The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this thing, that you have enabled the boys to live?" And the midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are skilled as midwives; when the midwife has not yet come to them, they have [already] given birth." God benefited the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. Now it took place when the midwives feared God, that He made houses for them. (Exodus 1:15-21)
This is the description of two extraordinary Hebrew women in Egypt. Their legacy is one of faith in G-d in the face of a brutal dictator, having the courage to resist conventional thinking and behaviors, together with the willingness to take risks for the sake of the next generation, to persist in living the Jewish way.
Tzachi Michaeli from Kiryat Shmona sent me the following thought which he asked to dedicate to the speedy recovery of his father, Dov ben Luba:
“These days we hear more and more about the ‘feminist lobby.’ But we need to be precise and acknowledge that this lobby, that supposedly represents half of our people, the female half, only raises its voice, like a shofar, at events that protest the status of women, as if their voice represents that of all Jewish women.
I think that the real women lobby was established in this week’s Torah portion. Everything started there. For the first time, Israel receives the designation of ‘am’ or nation, albeit from Pharaoh. Among Pharaoh’s harsh decrees is an order for the Hebrew midwives to kill every Jewish boy at birth. How will the women of this new nation, the nation of Israel, react?
Shifrah and Puah, who are actually Yocheved and Miriam, are, in fact, the first representatives of the Jewish nation, that only now has taken shape in Egypt, to appear in the Torah.”
And how is the uniqueness of these righteous women expressed? The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live. In defiance of the Egyptian dictator, the midwives do not kill the baby boys, and the Torah makes a point of telling us that these women made sure the boys grew up strong by worrying about and caring for them in secret. Shifrah and Puah see reality in a positive light – after all, Jewish boys are being born -- unlike Pharaoh. And everything that happens is because they remember that HaShem, not Pharoah, is their true king. Rashi comments with a quote from the prophet Yechezkel/Ezekiel (19:2): ‘How was your mother a lioness!’, reminding us that Israel is compared to a lioness. This is the first women lobby: positive action, faith, defiantly giving birth, joy.”
Up until this point, our focus has been exclusively on the midwives. But there are other members of the feminist lobby. Notice what we are told immediately afterwards: Amram marries Yocheved and Moses is born. What does his mother do?
וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי טוֹב הוּא וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה יְרָחִים
וְלֹא יָכְלָה עוֹד הַצְּפִינוֹ וַתִּקַּח לוֹ תֵּבַת גֹּמֶא וַתַּחְמְרָה בַחֵמָר וּבַזָּפֶת וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר
The woman conceived and bore a son, and [when] she saw him that he was good, she hid him for three months. [When] she could no longer hide him, she took [for] him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile's edge. (Exodus 2:2-3)
That is, Yocheved is also a lioness, who acts with the same spirit. And then Miriam appears, a little girl who acts like a mature woman of faith. According to the Midrash, Miriam influences her parents to remarry – they feared they would have a boy who, by Pharaoh’s decree, would be thrown into the Nile River – and never lose hope. So Moses is born and his sister Miriam watches over him from the river’s edge:
וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק לְדֵעָה מַה יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ
His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him. (Exodus 2:4)
This is a breathtaking passage. Some of the commentators explain that Miriam, being a prophetess, knew that everything would turn out okay, that salvation would come, except she did not know how it would happen. Therefore, she was not under duress, she was just standing there, waiting to see how things would work out for the best. “His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him,” and then a third woman enters the picture:
וַתֵּרֶד בַּת פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל הַיְאֹר וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל יַד הַיְאֹר וַתֵּרֶא אֶת הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ
וַתִּפְתַּח וַתִּרְאֵהוּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד וְהִנֵּה נַעַר בֹּכֶה וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו וַתֹּאמֶר מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה
Pharaoh's daughter went down to bathe, to the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant, and she took it. She opened [it], and she saw him the child, and behold, he was a weeping lad, and she had compassion on him, and she said, "This is [one] of the children of the Hebrews." (Exodus 2:4-5)
If previously it was only the Hebrew midwives, and then a Hebrew mother and her daughter, who opposed Pharaoh, now the daughter of Pharoah herself joins in opposing him. This is an impressive, powerful display of sisterhood, and these women would become heroic figures in the history of Am Yisrael.