Shabbat Shemot: Women

December 23, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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The Book of Exodus starts with the enslavement of the Israelites.

Up to this moment, the Torah has been following the lives of individuals, in the families of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The women were, as in all societies then, either subservient or restricted in their capacity to act or express their individuality.

In this new phase, that begins the Book of Exodus, the “Sons of Israel” have become a people, the nation of Israel, known to the Egyptians as Hebrews, outsiders. They have been enslaved. In this position, it is the males who come under most physical pressure as the labourers of the Egyptians. They have been humiliated and, psychologically damaged, as we continue to see throughout the narrative of the next forty years after the Exodus.

At this moment, the dynamic role of women emerges. Pharaoh wants to reduce the number of Israelites. Which itself is strange, why wouldn’t he want his pool of slaves to increase rather than be reduced? It is reminiscent of those empires that tried so hard to stamp out Jewish life which ended up damaging them as much as it affected the Jews. Nevertheless, Pharaoh decreed that all Hebrew male babies should be killed at birth.

The two Hebrew midwives Shifra and Pua were called to Pharaoh to kill the newborn babies at birth. Yet they worked to undermine Pharaoh’s command and find excuses for not obeying superior orders. Given what we know about autocratic rulers, they must have been extremely strong to have risked their lives. Yet they did not flinch and got away with it.

Pharoah then forbade the Hebrews to reproduce. He turned instead to the general population to carry out his orders and kill every newborn Israelite child. Yocheved of the Tribe of Levi who had separated from her husband to avoid conceiving decided to defy the orders, and gave birth to a child. But she feared his crying might attract the attention of the Egyptians and so she put the child into a waterproofed ark and hid it amongst the bulrushes along the river Nile. The child’s sister Miriam placed herself nearby to protect him and see what happens.

Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe with her servants and hearing the sound of a child crying, retrieved the baby and discovered it to be a Hebrew child. In a remarkable act of defiance to her father, she took the child to adopt. Miriam dared approach the princess and negotiated to have the child nursed by its birth mother and when he was weaned to bring him back to the palace.  Four strong women played a crucial role in preserving Jewish life.

The Rabbis of the Midrash reiterate the significant role of women in maintaining the morale of their husbands as they struggled under the lash of their taskmasters. In some cases ( as under the Nazis) women compromised themselves or were forced by Egyptian taskmasters. But they continued to defy their oppressors.

Miriam, herself would become a prophetess and one of the leaders of the Israelites on their journey through the desert. Remarkably Pharaoh’s daughter supported Moses in his choice to identify with the Hebrews. But when this conflicted with his Egyptian, he fled to Midian. He married a priest’s daughter, Tsiporah. She committed herself to his mission to return to Egypt. And on the way there she saved his life ( Exodus 4.24).

All this makes a crucial point about the role of women(and family)in preserving the Jewish tradition. This is a remarkable tribute to the power of women. It is why the home in Judaism is more important than the synagogues and public institutions in passing on Jewish values to the next generation. This is probably why Jewish identity was given to women, whereas tribal identities went through the males, differentiating the warriors from the homebuilders.

Throughout much of human history, male chauvinism has suppressed women and controlled the narrative. It still does in over half the world. But this is not an issue of gender although it might have been in the past. In modern society homes and families may differ from those in the past. Single parents, women deciding to have children on their own rather than settle for a second-rate spouse, and indeed men, all have an increasing role in running a home and parenting. The home is the crucible of identity, character, and tradition. This is about the importance of the home whoever manages it.

Exodus 1-6:1

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