Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Heroic Women of the Pesach Story: D'var Torah by Beverly Stein

D’var Torah

Beverly Stein

Passover – First Day 2021

Today’s Torah portion, Exodus 12:21-51 is from Parshat Bo which I spoke about in January. I promise to say something different.

Moses speaks about the duty of parents to educate their children, passing on to them their people’s story until it becomes their own. Moses tells the Israelites three times, per G-d’s command, how they should tell the story to their children in future generations. 

·  First, Exodus 12:26-27: When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when He struck down the Egyptians.’ 

·  Second, Exodus 13:8: On that day tell your child, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 

·  And third, Exodus 13:14: “In days to come, when your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 

At the moment of redemption, Moses did not speak about freedom but about education. He fixed his vision not on the immediate but on the distant future, and not on adults but children. In so doing he was making the point that it may be hard to escape from tyranny but it is harder still to build and sustain a free society. Freedom begins with what we teach our children. That is why Jews became a people whose passion is education, whose heroes are teachers and whose citadels are schools. Nowhere is this more evident than on Passover, when the entire ritual of passing on our story to the next generation is set in motion by the questions asked by a child. According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “freedom is born not on the battlefield but in homes, schools and houses of study.” That is the message of the world’s oldest ritual, Passover, and its force remains undiminished today. The message of Passover remains as powerful as ever.

In telling our story, we don’t stress the importance of the women in the story.  I am going to add them to our story.

The Talmud highlights the role of women in our Passover story. During the times of ancient Egypt, when Jews were enslaved, it was the responsibility of women to ensure that life would go on. They sat underneath the apple trees when their husbands returned drained from building Pharaoh’s cities, allowing them to forget their pains through their lovemaking, ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people. Later they would secretly give birth in the apple orchard, evading Pharaoh’s decree to kill every male baby. They kept the hope alive that somehow things would get better. These women, who were also working under Pharaoh’s rule, Exodus 1:14 “In all their service, wherein they made them serve with rigor”, put aside their own fears and exhaustion and found the strength to assuage those of their families. Talmud Sotah 11b states “In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.” 

Now, let’s look at the six key women of our Passover story:

The Midwives - Shifra and Puah

The first female characters to appear in Exodus 1:15-20 are the midwives, Shifra and Puah. Pharaoh calls Shifra and Puah to appear before him and demands that they kill all male children of the Israelites. The midwives refuse his request claiming that the Hebrew women are lively and give birth before they even reach them. This is one of the earliest known acts of civil disobedience. The text is unclear whether they were actually Hebrew midwives or Egyptian midwives for the Hebrews. In either case, for them to stand up to Pharaoh was heroic, but if they were Egyptian—it’s astonishing.

With this defiant act of conscience, Shifra and Puah didn't know that they were planting the seeds for a chain of events that would defeat the mightiest empire on earth and free a people from centuries of slavery.

The Rabbis inquire concerning the nature of the excuse given to Pharaoh by the midwives in Exodus 1:19, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous [hayyot].” This cannot mean that the Hebrew women themselves were midwives (one meaning of hayyot is midwives), since the midwife herself requires another midwife to give birth. Rather, they told Pharaoh that this nation is like the beasts (hayyot) of the field; the women, who are like beasts, do not need the help of any human. Thus, in Jacob’s blessing to his sons in Gen. 49, Judah is compared to a lion’s whelp, Dan to a serpent, Naphtali to a hind let loose, Issachar to a strong-boned ass, and so forth.  


Next we meet Yocheved, Moses’ mother. Pharaoh ordered that all newborn Hebrew boys be taken from their parents and drowned in the Nile. When baby Moses is born, his mother, Yocheved, according to midrash, hides him for three months. But then, unable to keep his existence secret any longer, she commits the second act of civil disobedience recorded in Exodus. Working with her daughter, Miriam, she places Moses in a woven basket and sets the baby adrift on the Nile.

Yocheved had the faith, the vision, and the strategy to save her son — and in the process, saved a nation.

Pharaoh’s daughter (Batya)

Next we encounter Pharaoh’s daughter who is clearly Egyptian. Her story appears in Exodus 2:5-10, She goes to the river to wash. she sees the basket, opens it, and saw the child; and declared “look – a boy crying.” Her compassion leads her to commit the third act of civil disobedience in the Exodus story. She moves out of her comfort level and becomes a mother.  She adopts and welcomes a child of another background and opens her heart to raise a child of another faith in her home. She then turns to Miriam to ask her to find him a wet nurse. She knowingly stays engaged with his family of origin. She is a model of welcoming and outreach and the tradition is that when we welcome others by adoption or hospitality, she blesses us.

By keeping the baby Moses alive, Batya sets the stage for the Exodus to occur.

In the Torah, Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed yet she does such an overwhelming gesture of kindness, in saving the baby, that the rabbis felt compelled to give her the name Batya, meaning “daughter of G-d.”


Our fifth female character is Miriam. She was a prophetess, a leader and a musician, as well as Moses and Aaron’s sister.

Miriam finds her independence at a young age, defying both her parents, and choosing to spare her brother’s life all in one bold decision. According to Midrash, Miriam’s father wanted to divorce her mother for fear of having another son. This practice of divorcing was common at the time. However, Miriam interjected; she scolded them both, and said, “by separating, you are decreeing death on both the sons and daughters of Israel!” After her brother’s birth, Miriam devised a way to keep Moses alive: along with her mother, Yocheved, by placing him in the Nile and offering Yocheved as a wet nurse.

In another instance of bold leadership, after the Israelites escape Egypt by miraculously crossing the Red Sea, Miriam leads the entire community in celebration with her famous Song of the Sea. In Exodus 15:20-21, Miriam takes a “timbrel in her hand” and “chanted for them.” As the story continues, all the women join Miriam, singing in unison: “Sing for the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.” There are only ten songs mentioned in the entire Torah; that one is led by a female stresses the importance of women in the Passover story and of the role of female leadership. Songs are often interpreted as an expressive form of prayer, so it is especially poignant that a woman is leading the Israelites in song. Miriam also inspires us to celebrate our victories, despite the bitter oppression we have endured.

The women came together, after crossing the Red Sea, to share their hope and joy and their commitment to the future, despite whatever differences may have divided them before they escaped.  The women serve as an example of how we should behave toward each other.

A modern tradition that many of us chose to do is put a Miriam’s cup on our Seder table. Miriam’s cup is filled with water and serves as a symbol of Miriam’s Well, the source of water for the Israelites in the desert.  There are legends about Miriam’s well.  It is said to have been a magical source of water that followed the Israelites for 40 years because of the merit of Miriam. The waters of these wells were said to have healing and sustaining powers.


The sixth and final female character is Tzipporah.  Tzipporah, Moses’s wife, is a Midianite princess. Tzipporah circumcises her son. Why does only one son need to be circumcised? The Rabbis are not clear on why only one son was circumcised. The Midrash teaches that only one of Moses and Tzipporah’s son had been circumcised, for the other had been promised to Yitro to be raised as a Midianite. Two angels stopped Moses and Tzipporah on their way back to Egypt. The angels of black and red fire, Af and Hemah who do God’s will on earth, were prepared to kill Moses for this transgression of not circumcising both boys.  In Exodus 4:24-26 - “So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched his legs with it saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!’ “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” Once again it is a woman who understands what has to be done to sustain the continuity of both the Jewish people.

Women are an essential part of the Passover story.  All six female protagonists in the Pesach story are a rebel. A rebel is a person who intentionally does something different from the norm because she has an opinion that is not shared by many others. A rebel stands up against unjust doings. The word “rebel” often has a negative connotation, but it can also be used to describe a truly inspiring person.  A rebel is someone who does “wrong” because she feels that her actions are right.

Not all of the women in our story were Israelites. The Israelites, therefore, were dependent on those outside their group to survive. We claim these non-Israelite and Israelite women as our heroines. Miriam’s cup is a symbol not only of Miriam but of all six of our heroines. They are part of the Passover story and are significant characters in our transformation from slavery to freedom. Then, as today, the survival and health of the Jewish people are not always in our own hands. As we move forward with these stories as our guide and the many interfaith partners we are embracing along the way, we must appreciate their efforts this Passover season in the ongoing story of liberation and transformation of the Jewish people and all of humanity.

It seems significant that this year, much of the Jewish month of Nissan and the holiday of Passover fall within Women’s History Month. March, with its themes of springtime renewal and new beginnings, and Passover, with its focus on the journey toward liberation, heighten the message of Women’s History Month: that centering the stories of those on the margins helps us see the world with fresh eyes and sparks the possibility for change, setting us on a path that extends far beyond the month of March and the Passover story. 

The Passover story is told and retold every year at the Seder. This year, let’s not forget the women of our story who ensured the survival of the Jewish people and teach us the importance of faith in our future and the importance of embracing and reaching out to help others.


Chag Sameach!

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