Drash on Parashat ShemotRabbi Martha BergadineUnited Jewish Congregationof Hong Kong
My kids and I have recently become fans of the television program “Downton Abbey.” One evening as we watched, enthralled by the Edwardian- era drama (Will Lady Mary find a proper fiancé?! What is the valet Bates’ secret?! Will the Dowager Countess win the Best Bloom Award at the flower show again?!), my children were surprised by the portrayal of a contentious rally to give women the vote.
“Haven’t women always been able to vote?” my ten year old son asked. When I told him that while women were enfranchised in Australia and New Zealand in the late 19th century, they have only been able to vote in the US and Great Britain since the 1920’s, my son rendered this judgment: “That was dumb. Why shouldn’t women vote?” He is so completely a product of the egalitarian civic environment in which he has been raised that he cannot comprehend a society that silenced women’s political voices.
He is however, aware that this is not the case for women in the Bible and Jewish history. My son knows that while it is easy to find a story about Abraham, Joseph, or Moses, you have to look harder to find the stories of women.
This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, provides a striking contrast to these usual Torah narratives. Moses, whose story begins this week and continues throughout the Torah, is at this point helpless, an infant utterly dependent on the courageous and compassionate women who literally pass him from hand to hand.
The first are the midwives, Shifrah and Puah. That we even know their names testifies to the significance of their actions. It is they who defy Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the male Hebrew babies immediately after birth. And not only do the midwives defy the decree, they face down Pharaoh himself explaining with a white lie that the Hebrew women are too vigorous and give birth too quickly for them to carry out his orders. Their actions are the first recorded case of civil disobedience in history.
Interestingly, we don’t even know if Shifrah and Puah were themselves Hebrews. The Torah does refer to them as “the Hebrew midwives” (Exodus 1:15), and many commentators, including Rashi and Ibn Ezra, take this to mean that the midwives were indeed Hebrews. However, other commentators as varied as Philo and Samuel David Luzzatto, see the women as Egyptians who served as midwives for the Hebrews. What is clear in any case, is that by risking their lives and defying Pharaoh, Shifrah and Puah saved countless Jewish infants, among them the newborn Moses.
It is from their hands that Moses is passed to the hands of another exceptional woman, his mother, Yocheved. She too risks her life, and no doubt the lives of her family, to hide the baby. When she can no longer hide him, Yocheved, with her own hands, crafts a waterproof basket, and places Moses in it. Trusting in her faith, she sets the basket with its precious cargo adrift on the Nile.
Another woman, the daughter of Pharaoh, sees the basket in the reeds and has it retrieved from the water. When she opens it, she sees the baby and lifts him out. Cradling the infant in her arms, she recognizes. “This must be Hebrew child” (Exodus 2:6). Moved by compassion and her sense of justice, she takes the child as her own son in defiance of her father’s decree.
Finally, Miriam, the last and youngest of the women, steps forward. She has been hiding in the reeds and watching. Just a girl herself, Miriam bravely speaks up to the daughter of Pharaoh, suggesting that she take the baby to a woman to be nursed. Pharaoh’s daughter agrees, offers to pay the woman’s wages, and places the baby in Miriam’s arms to be returned to his mother.
Because of these five women, Moses will survive his birth and infancy, be nurtured by his own mother, and educated in Pharaoh’s court. These experiences will shape him into the leader the Hebrews need. He will grow to become the Torah’s greatest figure.
However, Moses’ birth story is not the only one told in Parashat Shemot. This is also the beginning of the birth of the Israelite people and it is here that the phrase Am B’nai Yisrael – The Israelite People – is used for the only time in the Torah. For centuries, the Hebrews have been slaves in Egypt, but a new struggle will transform them from the enslaved descendents of Jacob into a free people. This struggle is now quietly begun and these women, Shifrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter, quite unknowingly have served as the midwives of the Israelite people.
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