If the Book of Exodus were a rock opera (and don't we all wish it were?), it might just start with the Israelite slaves joining together singing the words that Bonnie Tyler made so famous in the 1980s:
Where have all the good men gone and where are all the gods?
Where's the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need.
I need a hero, I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night
He's gotta be strong and he's gotta be fast
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight . . .
("Holding Out for a Hero," Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford)
As I snap out of my musical theater moment, I am struck by how much of the Exodus story, especially in terms of how we traditionally teach and conceptualize it, is a story about passive Israelites who collectively "hold out for a hero." We learn how they work endlessly, toiling and suffering in the desert sun, satisfying the cruel demands of a Pharaoh "who did not know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). At first glance, there are few instances of action or heroism until Moses grows into adulthood and learns of his fate to be the redeemer of the Jewish people.
However, a closer reading of the text itself allows us to celebrate a number of important acts of resistance, bravery, and compassion. Even more interestingly, each one is performed by a woman.
Following the Pharaoh's pronouncement that all sons born to Israelite women were to be killed immediately, we quickly hear about the courageous rebellion of two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. The midwives did not follow Pharaoh's command and, instead, saved each baby boy. When questioned by their king they shrugged off his concern, essentially answering that the Hebrew women gave birth much too quickly for them to attend to the mothers (Exodus 1:15-19).
Unfortunately, the text does not reveal much about these two women; in fact, there is some disagreement about who they might have been. "It is unclear from the wording of the Hebrew whether they are Hebrew women who work as midwives, or Egyptian midwives who serve the Hebrews . . . Alternatively, it is possible that the narrator is here mentioning the names of the overseers of two guilds of midwives-or the names of the guilds themselves. Either way, it is significant that while the pharaoh's name is not mentioned, the names of these two women are preserved" (The Torah: A Women's Commentary). 1 Despite this lack of information, the Torah text still highlights Shiphrah and Puah's life-saving actions and the role they play in allowing Moses to survive his birth.
Against this backdrop we meet Jochebed and Amram,2 who are already parents of two young children (Aaron and Miriam) and are now giving birth to a third child. One might ask, if the Israelites knew that such a terrible decree had been made, why would they continue having children? Well, the Rabbis asked this question as well. Here's where one of our greatest heroines, Miriam, enters the stage. The Rabbis believed that Amram was a great scholar of his time, and thus, when he heard Pharaoh's plan to kill all baby boys, he divorced his wife, ensuring that no more children would be born to them. All the other families soon followed.
However, little five-year-old Miriam revealed her prophetic abilities when she reprimanded Amram: " 'Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you have decreed against both the males and the females [because all the Israelites withdrew from their wives, neither sons nor daughters would come into the world]. Pharaoh decreed only for this world, but you decreed both for this world and the next [a baby that was born and died as a result of Pharaoh's decree would reach the World to Come, but an unborn child would not attain this]' " (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a).
Jocheved bravely gives birth to a newborn Israelite boy. She refuses to allow him to be killed, and hides him for three months. This time must have been terrifying, bringing to mind the children hidden during the years of the Holocaust. Every cry must have been a fright, as if he would be discovered by Egyptian guards at any moment.
Nonetheless, Miriam's prophesying continued: " . . . when my brother Moses was born, our family's house filled with light. Although I was only five years old, I prophesied that this newborn child would become a great leader and redeem our people from slavery" (Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997], p. 95). With this hope in mind, Jocheved lovingly builds a small ark for Moses to float down the river, presumably to safety. The Talmud (Babyonian Talmud, M'gillah 14a) even places Miriam on the banks of the Nile, mindfully watching over her little brother as he floats towards the royal palace, his new life as the son of the Pharaoh's daughter, and his destiny.
We add Pharaoh's daughter to our list when we recall how she decides to raise an obviously Hebrew child as her own. This was in direct opposition to her father, yet this does not seem to affect her. And we add Zipporah, Moses's Midianite wife, who circumcises her son Gershom herself, so he can take his place as a part of the Israelite community.
These are six women imbued with incredible strength, tenacity, and chutzpah. They are capable of receiving Divine inspiration and acting on it. They don't just wait for a "street-wise Hercules" or a "white knight" on his steed. Rather, they take control of their situation to the best of their ability, and make change happen for themselves. These women, our ancestors, inspire us to remember the power that each of us-male and female, young and old, rich and poor-holds in our own hands. We need not wait for someone else to save us. Rather, we can do it right here, and right now, ourselves.
1. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, ed., Andrea L. Weiss, assoc. ed., The Torah: A Women's Commentary (New York: URJ Press and WRJ, 2008), p. 309
2. "A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a woman of Levi," (Exodus 2:1). They are identified as Amram and Jochebed in Exodus 6:20.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the "Reform, Really" column featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
Rabbi Marci Bellows' observation that women form the core of heroic resistance to Pharaoh bears repeating and amplifying. In the opening chapters of the Exodus narrative, women reach across enemy lines to join hands and generations to save life. As glorious as this phenomenon is, it is even more amazing to note that this is not the first time it has occurred: all our founding narratives echo a similar theme.
Many writers have noted the tension within biblical storytelling of nomos versus narrative. On one hand, we are given the expected order of things, the laws that govern society. And on the hand, we are given the story. Think of Genesis 27 and the "deception" of Isaac. We know that the law, the "nomos," is the law of primogeniture; Esau is the one to inherit Isaac's blessing. But the law is overturned by the story. The law/nomos is upheld in each case by the male; the story is driven by the female. It is Isaac who wants his firstborn, Esau, to inherit the blessing. But it is Rebekah who is graced by divine wisdom (God revealed the divine plan to her in Genesis 25:23); she subverts the law and upends it-and it is Jacob, her favorite, who inherits the blessing.
The same theme repeats in each of the narratives of the founding families. In short, when Abraham is told that Sarah is to bear him a child, Abraham protests, saying he already has a son. God insists, "As for Ishmael, I have heard you. See, I have blessed him and made him fruitful and made him exceedingly numerous-he will father twelve princes; I will make him into a great nation. But it is with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear for you at this time next year, that I will establish My covenant," (Genesis 17:20-21). We could look at each of the Genesis narratives-but for now, it will be enough to end with Judah and Tamar. Tamar violates all the essential sexual prohibitions-all the laws (adultery, incest); but Judah is nonetheless compelled to say, "She is more in the right than I," (Genesis 38:26). In each of these stories, the greater "right" is imbedded in the overturning of the law-culminating in the story of our redemption from Egyptian bondage. It is no surprise that women are again the source of that rebellion. It is only a surprise that we haven't learned it that way.
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York.
Sh’mot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 382-414; Revised Edition, pp. 343-374;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 305-330