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 things that women can do (do you know how much that hurts!). 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 prophesize hope for better days.
It’s a story familiar to Jews as it is precisely the story about birth, and more specifically, the birth of a Jewish nation, that we celebrate each Passover.
The birth images and references of the Passover story are uncanny. Just look at 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 the Hebrew male babies, who deny Pharaoh’s decree by letting the Hebrew children 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 forth to freedom surrounded by rushing water.
The Rabbis say that Israel was redeemed from Egypt because of righteous women. While women may have been front and center of the story way back when, by the time the Seder rolls around these days, the only thing that righteous women have strength to redeem is the pot roast from the oven.
Who were these righteous women of the Exodus story and how can their deeds help deepen our experience of Passover this year?
Yocheved, under the decree to murder Israelite male babies, conceives and has a son. After three months she is afraid that he will be discovered and harmed, so she places her son in a basket in a river and hopes he will arrive to a new reality in safety. Because of her daughter’s intervention with Pharaoh’s daughter, Yocheved is able to feed and nourish her own son until he is grown. Only then does she give him over to Pharaoh’s daughter. Her decision to continue 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 on the bank of the river as Moses’ basket 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. As the text in Exodus 15:20 states, “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”
Rushing out of Egypt, with little time to pack any non-essentials, Miriam brought her tambourine. She had faith that there would be reason to celebrate.
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 by saying, “The Hebrew women are not as the (Egyptian) women; for they are like animals, and [give birth] before the midwives come to them” (Exodus 1:19). Their strong moral compass and clever protest save lives.
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. Rashi, the famous French commentator, speaks of God’s praise for the mirrored jewelry that the Israelite women later brought as their contribution to the Mishkan, the temporary tabernacle in the desert, saying that “these are dearer to Me than all the other contributions, because through them the women reared those huge hosts [many children] in Egypt!”
Rashi continues, “For when their husbands were tired through the crushing labor, they used to bring them food and drink and forced them to eat. They would then take the mirrors and each gazed at herself in the mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, ‘See, I am more handsome than you.’ Thus they awakened their husbands’ affection and subsequently became the mothers of many children.”
These women, both named and unnamed, have the qualities that redeemed the Jewish people. Their courage, foresight, willingness to fight for what they knew was right and 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 of wine 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? Like the midwives, how can we be sure to do what is right even when it is unpopular, or worse, politically dangerous? 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 more promising future?
We read in the Passover Haggadah that “everyone who expands upon telling the story of the Exodus is praiseworthy.” This year, let’s expand our notion of the story we tell every year and let the righteous women of the Exodus story lead the way.
Dasee Berkowitz is a Jewish educator and the founder of JLife Consulting in New York City.