Women have exercised their inherent gift of intuition and bravery to influence the course of Jewish history from the earliest time recorded.
The dramatic confrontation between Sarah and Avraham over the choice of successor, in effect a struggle over the survival of Judaism, was reenacted a generation later between Rivka and Yitzchak. In the face of his own preference, Rivka, just like Sarah, was intrinsically directed to choose the optimal heir to Yitzchak.
Egyptian Exile and Exodus are pivotal landmarks in the history of our people’s struggle for survival. References to Galut Mitzrayim (Exile in Egypt) and Yetziat Mitzrayim (Exodus from Egypt) are central to the entire corpus of Jewish socio-ethical teaching. Against such background, the rabbinic dictum that “It is to the credit of the righteous women that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11) is quite remarkable. Our rabbis recognized the roles women played in making redemption possible.
The Hebrew midwives, who at the risk of their lives defied the edict of Pharaoh “and let the children live” (Sh’mot 1:17), were rewarded for their great courage, and “G-d granted a bounty for the midwives, and the nation multiplied and grew very mighty” (Sh’mot 1:20). The other women also did their share to ensure survival by keeping their appearance attractive and boosting their husbands’ morale.
Within this context the Midrash focuses on the role of Miriam whose admonishment prompted her own father to resume his marital duty. And so, the birth and survival of Moshe, the Divine instrument of Israel’s redemption, was the consequence of intuitive acts by a number of women which included, besides Miriam and Yocheved, even Pharaoh’s daughter who, by adopting Moshe and providing a Hebrew nurse for him, completed the first phase of Israel’s redemption.
Regarding the next phase of redemption, Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, our rabbis claim that the women were given the Torah first because it is they who teach their children “the ways of the Torah.” The teachers of “the way” to the next generation hold the secret of a people’s survival. They are the bridge to the Jewish future.
The Biblical precedent established a pattern for women of later generations to have a historically defined role as the vanguard in the struggle of Jewish survival. At every crucial juncture women have stepped into the historical vacuum to provide roles as unseen movers based on their prophetic intuition and their ability “to tune into” the existential self of the Jewish people.
From Rebbetzin Recha Freier who spearheaded a movement which evolved into the Youth Aliyah, a major instrument of rescue for Jewish children during the Holocaust, to Rivka Gruber, teacher, librarian, and social worker, who, after her two sons fell in Israel’s War of Independence, became the founder of a string of settlements in the Sharon Valley, women have been silent movers, creating educational, social, health and welfare infrastructures for the Jewish community.
And how about the women in our present situation of surrounding existential threat, the war of terror in Israel?
That chapter is being written even as we speak. Do you remember the name Chava Shatsky? How could you? She is one among innumerable heroines whose children were murdered by Arab terrorists, one name among hundreds. Her 15 year-old daughter Keren was killed by an Arab terrorist in the Karne Shomron mall on Motzei Shabbat, February 16, 2002.
I happen to remember because of a personal connection. Reading in The Jewish Press that Karen and the other casualties were pupils in Kedumim’s Ulpana Lehava, where someone from my family taught English, I immediately contacted her to offer my emotional support. When I started to speak and my words drowned in tears, it was she who comforted me. Yes, Keren was her pupil, she said, and Keren’s mother, Chava Shatsky, was the chairman of the department at Lehava.
“You must speak to Chava,” she advised me. “Chava will give you chizuk, strength… she gave chizuk to all of us. In our grief over Keren, the faith of Keren’s mother gave us all strength,” the young teacher said. When I expressed profound amazement, she continued: “Yes, it is amazing. Yet there are many other women who react similarly. And these women are the guarantee that we will make it,” she said with pride.
The young teacher’s words helped me. They helped me cope with the grief and face the future. Indeed, these heroic mothers, like Jewish women throughout our history of confrontation with existential threats are the guarantee that we will make it.
Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson