If all you knew about the Exodus from Egypt was what you learned in Hebrew school and the story we tell at Passover, then you would not be entirely wrong, but then again, you would not be entirely right either. From one generation to the next, we tell the tale – a story that reaches its triumphal denouement in this week’s Torah reading, B’shallah.
A new Pharaoh arose in Egypt who neither knew Joseph nor took kindly to the Hebrews living in his midst. Not only did Pharaoh decree that the Hebrews be enslaved, but he decreed that every male Israelite baby be cast into the Nile. In chapter two we are introduced to Moses, a Hebrew boy raised in the house of Pharaoh, who, upon seeing the bitter afflictions of his Hebrew kinsmen, takes a stand, thus proving himself to possess the requisite character and courage to lead his people. At the burning bush, God summons Moses to step up to the calling of the hour and to go, together with his brother Aaron, before Pharaoh – which is exactly what Moses does. “Let my people go!” demands Moses. But Pharaoh, with his hardened heart, digs in. God, thank God, has Israel’s back and here come the plagues! Blood, frogs, lice, plague after plague – ten in total – until, finally, after the death of the first born, Pharaoh’s will is finally broken and Moses takes flight with his people. With the sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s chariots closing in from behind, the fate of Israel hangs in the balance. According to the rabbis of old, a young boy Nachshon stepped courageously into the water, his faith prompting the sea to split. This morning is Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, so named because on this day we read the triumphant song sung by Moses and the Israelites as they cross over to dry land and freedom, redeemed from Egypt.
The showdown between Moses and Pharaoh is a good story – maybe the best story of all – a combination of machismo, moxie, and matzo; power politics, plagues, and yes – miracles. This morning, I want to tell you a different story, or at least a different version of the same story, a version that we don’t tell at Passover, a version that I was reminded of upon listening to a lecture this week by Dr. Tamar Kadari of Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.
This story begins with the following Talmudic comment: Bis’khar nashim tzidkaniyot she-hayu b’oto hador nigalu yisrael mi-mitzrayim. By the merit of the righteous women of that generation the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b)
In this version, our focus is not on the men but on the women of that generation; in this version, it was due to their courage, their character, their vision and heroism that we were redeemed. So, who were these women? Well, let’s start at the very beginning – with all the Hebrew women of childbearing age. Pharaoh’s decree had been issued: “Every son that has been born shall be cast into the river.” (Exodus 1:22) According to the rabbis, the men, following the lead of Amram (a figure to whom we shall return), divorced their wives. Better, they thought, not to bring life into this world at all, than to risk it being taken by Pharaoh’s cruel edict. Amram’s young daughter Miriam courageously confronted her father Amram in his hopelessness. “Your decision, Father, is more cruel than that of Pharoah,” she argued, “for while Pharaoh’s decree was against future males, yours is against both males and females; while Pharaoh’s decree may result in cutting off a future generation, your decision cuts off our future entirely.” Amram embraces the wisdom and hope of his daughter and reunites with his wife Yocheved, as do all the Hebrew families, giving life not only to Moses, but to an entire generation that would have otherwise never been brought to life.
One cannot underestimate the substance and symbolism behind the insistence of the Hebrew women to give life to the next generation. According to the midrash, when the men returned from their daily labors, they were so exhausted, so overcome with despair, that they resigned themselves that theirs would be the last generation. It was the women who insisted, hope against hope, that tomorrow could be a better day than today. They had hope and they had faith, and while I will keep this sermon rated PG, the rabbis explain that they also had their feminine wiles. They took out their mirrors and complimented each other, supporting each other in doing whatever needed to be done to bring life into this world. Each child born against a backdrop of death and despair, each child a symbol of hope and resilience, of light in darkness, of steadfast belief in an unrealized future. So laudable was the faith of Yocheved and the Israelite women, that the mirrors they used to make themselves beautiful would be used in the construction of God’s Tabernacle.
For all the faith of the Hebrew women, Pharaoh’s wicked decree remained, directing our attention to two women in particular, the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah. While some understand the label “Hebrew midwives” to refer to Egyptian women who tended to Israelite women, and others understand the label to refer to midwives who themselves were Hebrew, all agree that these two women possessed a moral courage that transcended national identity. On a practical level it was the midwives, who, in refusing to carry out Pharaoh’s decree, saved the Israelite babies – Moses, presumably, included. On a deeper level, I think the story of the midwives is put front and center in much the same way as when one walks into Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the first thing one encounters is not the horrors wrought by the Nazi regime but the Garden of the Righteous – the monument honoring gentiles who saved Jewish lives at risk to themselves. Both the garden and the midwives remind us that as human beings we always have moral agency, choice always exists, and the defense of “following orders,” is never a defense. In the words of Martin Luther King: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells [them] is unjust . . . is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.” We know what we are going to see, we know what is about to happen, a horror made possible not only by the actions of the perpetrators but by the inaction of those who stood by with indifference. Not so, say the midwives. We can, even at great personal cost, remind ourselves and those around us that we are all capable of making independent moral decisions – when it is popular to do so and when – perhaps especially when – it is not.
Notably, the Talmudic text does not say that redemption came by way of the Israelite women of that generation, but the women of that generation, language meant to include both Israelite and non-Israelite women. Not just the midwives, who may have been Egyptian, but the most prominent non-Israelite woman of that generation, the daughter of Pharaoh. What do we know about the daughter of Pharaoh? Not much, other than that she was bathing in the Nile that day when she spied the baby in the bullrushes about whom she knew only – presumably due to his circumcision – that he was a Hebrew. Traditionally we read her decision to rescue him and raise him as a lovely act of kindness and compassion, which it was. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out that far more was at stake in this scene at the Nile. Imagine if you will, Sacks writes, that instead of “Pharaoh’s daughter,” the text read “Stalin’s daughter,” or “Hitler’s daughter.” Again, the rabbis of the midrash are well aware of the charged dynamic, painting a scene in which Pharaoh’s daughter’s handmaidens caution her that it is one thing for an Egyptian to disobey Pharaoh’s orders, but a risk of an entirely different order for her to so flagrantly violate her own father’s decree. Nevertheless, not only does she save the child, but she raises that child. For her courage, the rabbis say she was rewarded three times over. First, it is Pharaoh’s daughter – the adoptive mother, not the biological parents – who names Moses - Moses. Second, she herself receives the name Bat-Yah, meaning “daughter of God.” So praiseworthy was her strength of spirit, that finally, she was rewarded with the rarest honor, for Jew or gentile, admission into paradise.
Yocheved, Shifrah, Puah, Bat-Yah and, of course, Moses’s Midianite wife, Tziporah, who in an enigmatic and sermon-worthy scene, not only casts her lot with her Hebrew husband and his people but takes it upon herself to circumcise their son – saving both his life and the Jewish future. But no discussion of the righteous women of the Exodus generation would be complete without focusing on the great prophetess herself – Miriam. As noted, we are first introduced to Miriam as a young girl, when she asserted her voice in the face of her father’s decree. We know that when her despairing mother Yocheved set her baby son down in the Nile, it was Miriam who accompanied her brother until his safety was assured. It was the slave girl Miriam who mustered the courage to address Pharoah’s royal daughter. Miriam’s voice is the voice of courage; Miriam’s voice is the voice of hope; Miriam’s voice is, most of all, the voice of song. It was not just Moses who sang at the sea, it was also Miriam. Shiru l’Adonai ki ga·oh ga·ah, Sing to the Lord who has triumphed gloriously. (Exodus 15:21) Not just her voice, but her spirit. The rabbis note the textual curiosity that unlike Moses, Miriam not only sang but had a timbrel in her hand. Even as the plagues came in Egypt, even as the Israelites fled without time for their bread to rise, Miriam understood that a brighter day awaited; a time for joy and song and dance would come, and when that moment came, somebody better have a timbrel handy. It was Miriam who picked up that timbrel, who believed that even when hope is frail there can be miracles. It was Miriam who was headfirst fearless, dancing at the sea, leading the Israelites to redemption.
“By the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.” The Exodus story as we know it is not wrong. I like a good miracle story as much as the next person. But if we don’t elevate and celebrate and seek to emulate the worldly heroism of the heroines of the Exodus story, then not only do we miss the real drama of that story, but we miss out on the role each one of us is called on to play in the dramas of our own lives. We are, thank God, not living in the circumstances of our ancestors – but opportunities for quiet and not-so-quiet heroism abound. We may choose, as did Yocheved, to work toward a future beyond our present horizon. We can, like the midwives, take a moral stand even when doing so comes at cost and sacrifice. We should, whether we are born to poverty or privilege, like the daughter of Pharoah, extend compassion to the cries of a diverse humanity. And we must, as did the prophetess Miriam herself, leverage the power of our voices for love, for compassion, for activism, for hope, and for song. Like timbrels ready to be picked up, there are miracles within all of our reach. On this Shabbat Shirah may we find our voices and join the chorus of righteous women by whose merit our people were redeemed.
“The Light at the Heart of Darkness.” Covenant & Conversation. The Rabbi Sacks Legacy.