By: April Akiva, MAJE
In a history and biblical story that places so much emphasis on male characters and patrilineal lines, I so enjoy beginning the book of Exodus each year, because it highlights the female Hebrews’ roles in saving the Israelite people.
In this week’s parashah, Shemot, men are absent from the picture. The Hebrews have now greatly multiplied and are slaves in Egypt, working for a hardened Pharaoh who no longer remembers Joseph. When the Pharaoh decrees to throw every newborn male into the Nile, the Hebrew women take matters into their own hands and defy such orders. They cannot defy their God nor their moral codes.
The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiprah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth stool: if it is a boy, kill him; it it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:15-18)
Another courageous Hebrew, Yocheved, strategically places her son, Moses, in the Nile. She places him close enough to where she knows the Egyptian princess will be bathing, in hopes that Moses will be spared and taken into the Egyptian palace. In a risky way, Yocheved places her son into a position where he could potentially emerge as an important leader in Egypt. Perhaps she has enough faith in God and her son that she foresees his future as Israelite leader? Might she have envisioned her son’s role in redeemed the Hebrew slaves?
After the Egyptian princess finds Moses and decides to make him her own, she hires Yocheved as a wet nurse. In ancient days, the wet nurse would feed and raise a baby until he is grown into a child. It isn’t until Moses is a child that he is returned to Pharaoh’s palace. By this point Moses has already absorbed much of his birth mother’s values, love, and direction.
Parashat Shemot gives honor to the role of the women throughout the ages—women have remained the backbone of conscience and morality for thousands of years. They have taken risks for the betterment of their children and community. They have steered their children into directions that potentially enrich their lives. They have sacrificed for their children, in ancient Egypt and today.
The Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbe once made a beautiful comment about the Hebrew women’s role and actions under Pharaoh’s edict and how it pertains to our lives today. He said:
In our own day, the Pharaoh-instituted practice of drowning children in the Nile is still with us: there are still parents whose highest consideration in choosing a school for their children is how it will further their child’s economic prospects when the time will come for him or her to enter the job market.
The people of Israel survived the Egyptian galut because there were Jewish mothers who refused to comply with Pharaoh’s decree to submerge their children in his river. If we are to survive the present galut, we, too, must resist the dictates of the current Pharaohs. We must set the spiritual and moral development of our children rather than their future “earning power” and “careers” as the aim of their education.
What might be “Pharaoh-inspired” practices of today be?
How might we emulate the courageous, values-grounded women of our biblical history?