The Women Behind the Exodus Story



What woman has changed your life? My toddler intuited his answer when he said to me, "Thank you, ima, for making me."

That's right, folks — mothers, hands down, have probably had the single biggest impact on our lives. Giving birth to children is probably one of the most courageous — not to mention painful — things that women can do. Beyond the physical drama, there's the courage to bring life into our uncertain world. Even in places of dire political and social unrest, women continue to have children and, in that very act, they demonstrate hope for better days.

It's precisely the story about birth, and more specifically, the birth of a Jewish nation, that we celebrate each Passover.

The birth images of the Passover story are uncanny. In the first chapter of the book of Exodus, we see a nation swelling in numbers under a Pharaoh who did not know of the deeds of Joseph. We meet midwives ordered to kill Hebrew male babies, but deny Pharaoh's decree by letting them live. We meet Israelite women who are incredibly fertile. We see how Moses' mother, Yocheved, protects her 3-month-old child in a womb-like basket. And finally, we witness the Twelve Tribes of Israel bursting to freedom surrounded by rushing water.

The rabbis say that Israel was redeemed from Egypt because of righteous women. Who were these women, and how can their deeds help deepen our experience of Passover this year?

Yocheved, despite the decree to murder Israelite male babies, conceives and has a son. Fearful that he will be harmed, she places him in a basket in a river and hopes he will arrive to a new reality in safety. Her decision to have children might be viewed as risky or even negligent to some, but it is that sense of risk that brings about the leader of our redemptive narrative, Moses.

Miriam, Moses' sister, stands guard as Moses floats downstream. She has the confidence to ask Pharaoh's daughter to let an Israelite — her mother — nurse the baby. We meet Miriam again after the crossing of the Red Sea, leading the women in victory.

Shifra and Puah, Hebrew midwives, blatantly defy the demand of the Egyptian king. In reaction to the bursting population growth of the Israelites, Pharaoh orders them to kill every son born to an Israelite woman. When the king discovers their civil disobedience and they continue to let baby boys live, the midwives defend their actions.

Israelite women seduced their husbands while the husbands toiled under the harsh conditions of slavery. They had the foresight to know that the survival of their people depended on having a next generation.

These women, both named and unnamed, have qualities that redeemed the Jewish people. Their courage, foresight and willingness to fight for what they knew was right — and their self-possession — give us cause to celebrate.

When we sit down to the Passover seder this year and raise four cups of wine, let's dedicate each cup to these qualities that our women of freedom possessed in abundance.

Like Yocheved and Miriam, when we are faced with adversity, in what ways are we courageous, and like the Israelite women, how can we cultivate a sense of faith that moves us beyond the pain of the present moment toward a much more promising future?


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