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August 31, 2015 / 16 Elul, 5775
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Six Heroic Women

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

This week’s parshah could be entitled “The birth of a leader.” We see Moses, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, growing up as a prince of Egypt. We see him as a young man, for the first time realizing the implications of his true identity. He is, and knows he is, a member of an enslaved and suffering people: “Growing up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people” (Exodus 2:10).

He intervenes and acts: the mark of a true leader. We see him intervene three times – twice in Egypt, once in Midian – to rescue victims of violence. We then witness the great scene at the burning bush, where God summons him to lead his people to freedom. Moses hesitates four times until God becomes angry and Moses knows he has no other choice. This is a classic account of the childhood of a hero.

But this is only the surface. The Torah is a deep and subtle book, and it does not always deliver its message on the surface. Just beneath is another and far more remarkable story, not about a hero but about six heroines, six courageous women without whom there would not have been a Moses.

First is Yocheved, wife of Amram and mother of the three people who were to become the great leaders of the Israelites: Miriam, Aaron and Moses himself. It was Yocheved who, at the height of Egyptian persecution, had the courage to have a child, hide him for three months, and then devise a plan to give him a chance of being rescued. We know all too little of Yocheved. In her first appearance in the Torah she is unnamed. Yet, reading the narrative, we are left in no doubt about her bravery and resourcefulness. Not by accident did her children all become leaders.

The second was Miriam, Yocheved’s daughter and Moses’s elder sister. It was she who kept watch over the child as the ark floated down the river, and who approached Pharaoh’s daughter with the suggestion that he be nursed among his own people. The biblical text paints a portrait of the young Miriam as a figure of unusual fearlessness and presence of mind. Rabbinic tradition went further. In a remarkable midrash, we read of how the young Miriam confronted her father Amram and persuaded him to change his mind. Hearing of the decree that every male Israelite baby would be drowned in the river, Amram led the Israelites in divorcing their wives so that there would be no more children. He had logic on his side. Could it be right to bring children into the world if there were a fifty percent chance that they would be killed at birth? Yet Miriam, so the tradition goes, remonstrated with him. “Your decree,” she said, “is worse than Pharaoh’s. His affects only the boys, yours affects all. His deprives children of life in this world, yours will deprive them of life even in the World to Come.” Amram relented, and as a result, Moses was born. The implication is clear: Miriam had more faith than her father.

Third and fourth were the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who frustrated Pharaoh’s first attempt at genocide. Told to kill the male Israelite children at birth, they “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). Summoned and accused of disobedience, they outwitted Pharaoh by constructing an ingenious cover story: the Hebrew women, they said, are vigorous and give birth before we arrive. They escaped punishment and saved lives.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


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