The focal drama of our historical existence, most certainly a watershed event in our evolution as a people, Divinely inspired, Divinely directed, was the Exodus from Egypt — Yetziat Mitzrayim.
Ask any child who the main heroes of the drama are and he will say, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohein. No need to elaborate, the Torah is clear and explicit in assigning these roles. Despite his reluctance, Moshe is singled out for his assignment and so is Aharon. The voice of the Almighty is distinct in reiterating their mission, and they, faithful servants, obey the Divine command and earn their place in the limelight.
But there is an invisible center stage in the story of Exodus, and this undoubtedly belongs to the women. A succession of women, unbidden, assumed a variety of roles which made the ultimate redemption possible. Voluntarily, with inherent perception, these women helped set in motion the chain of events that would break the deadlock of the ever-escalating persecution and absolute slavery. And at every crucial turn, it was women who stepped in to move things along to its ultimate conclusion – the Redemption.
First the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, were not explicitly commanded by the Almighty to defy, at the risk of their lives, the edict of Pharaoh. They did so out of intrinsic faith: “The midwives feared G-d and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, and let the children live” (Shemot 1:17). As a reward for their great courage, not only did those children live but, “G-d granted a bounty for the midwives, and the nation multiplied and grew very mighty” (Shemot 1:20).
Have you ever focused on this elusive phrase and realized that Am Yisrael’s growing into a mighty nation in Egypt was as payment for the Hebrew midwives’ faith and courage?
Second, read the phrase describing the Hebrew women in Egypt as having “had great vitality” (Shemot 1:19). How were they able to produce a mighty nation while in abject slavery and in the face of despair? According to the Midrash, this vitality came from an innate strength of spirit: “it was the women who, by keeping their appearance attractive boosted the morale of their men.”
Third, this Midrash focuses on the role of Miriam who as a young girl possessed womanly awareness of Israel’s survival technique. It was her admonishment that prompted her own father to resume his marital obligations. Just like all the other Hebrew men, Amram had despaired of family life after Pharaoh’s edict spelled death to all Hebrew male infants. Miriam’s reminder that Amram’s act was worse than Pharaoh’s edict because it spelled death also to female infants brought home the message.
The birth of Moshe, the Divine instrument of Israel’s redemption, was the consequence of Miriam’s intervention. But it was Yocheved, who after giving birth to the infant defied the royal decree in order to save his life, made it possible for him to achieve his mission.
Fourth, Miriam’s role in overseeing the infant’s fate until he was in the safekeeping of Pharaoh’s daughter and securing his own mother as a nurse for him, completed the first phase of redemption.
Fifth is the role of Pharaoh’s daughter: didn’t she know it was a Hebrew infant she drew from the Nile and adopted? Didn’t she know that by providing a Hebrew nurse for her adopted child she was providing a potential course for his life, and that course would not be an Egyptian one?
(To Be Continued)Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson
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