Women and the Exodus

An extract from The Jonathan Sacks Haggada

3 March 2004
exodus from egypt women of bnei yisrael travelling through the desert at night midbar journey travelling out of mitzrayim e1712042449393

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By merit of the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt.

Sota 11b

The human hero of the Exodus was Moses. It was he who saw the suffering of his people and came to the defence of a man being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster, and it was he who heard the call of God, confronted Pharaoh, and led the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert on the long journey to the Promised Land. Moses dominates the biblical story – prophet, leader, and lawgiver, the epic figure standing between God and the people, wrestling with both.

Yet the opening chapters of Exodus tell another story, no less fascinating, perhaps more so. A close reading of the text reveals that alongside the hero, matching his strength in the face of tyranny, was a series of heroines. The human face of the Exodus is the story of six remarkable women. Without Moses there might have been no exodus. But without the heroism of women there would have been no Moses. Who were they?

The first was Yocheved, Moses’ mother. I try to imagine the courage of a woman willing to have a child once the decree has been issued to “throw every boy who is born into the river” (Ex. 1:22). The scene is Germany, 1939. Anti-Jewish edicts are in force. There is a sense of impending tragedy. To have a child at that time is a supreme act of hope in the midst of despair. That is the bravery of Yocheved.

What do we know about her? Surprisingly little. Her first appearance in the text is conspicuously anonymous: “A man from the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi” (Ex. 2:1). At this stage neither of Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved, is named. We soon see Yocheved’s resourcefulness. For three months she hides the child. When she can do so no longer, she makes a rush basket and sets him afloat on the Nile, hoping he will be noticed and saved. Like many biblical women, she is a person of action, determination, and courage. What else do we know about her?

Only this, that she gives birth to three children destined for greatness: Miriam, the prophetess, Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, and Moses, its greatest leader. She endows her children, genetically or by example, with the gift of leadership. We can infer something more. She and her husband are both from the tribe of Levi. A few chapters earlier, the Torah has told us in connection with Levi, Jacob’s third-born child, that his father did not see him destined for great things. Together with Simeon, he had rescued their sister Dina at the cost of what Jacob thought was excessive violence. On his deathbed he delivers both a prediction and a curse:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; their wares are instruments of violence. Let my soul not enter their council, my heart not join their company, for in their anger they killed men and hamstrung oxen as they pleased. Cursed be their anger for it is fierce, and their fury, for it is cruel.”

Gen. 49:5

We hear little subsequently about Simeon. But the children of Levi defy Jacob’s low opinion. From their ranks will eventually come not only the three leaders of the Exodus, but Israel’s priests and Levites, its spiritual ministers, for all time. There is more than a hint that something in Yocheved – her capacity for hope or her faith in life – transforms, in her children, violence into courage, and aggression into an unshakable determination to rescue people and set them on the path to liberty. She has the subtle gift of transforming vice into virtue. She becomes the mother of Israel’s leaders.

The second woman is Miriam, Yocheved’s daughter, Moses’ elder sister. What we know about her is no less impressive. She takes the risk of following the rush basket containing the baby as it floats down the Nile. She sees it taken out of the water by an Egyptian princess. Not content with witnessing its rescue, she takes a remarkable initiative. She goes up to the princess and offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child. The result is that Moses, against all odds, is taken home and brought up in his own family. Miriam is the child slave who has the confidence to be undaunted in the presence of royalty, the courage to speak openly to the daughter of her people’s oppressor, and the resourcefulness to think of a way of bringing the baby back to its home. We sense in her qualities of character of a high order. Without her, Moses might never have known his identity. He would have grown up not knowing he was an Israelite. As if sensing what was at stake, Miriam performs a role that in retrospect was crucial for Israel’s redemption – one of the few instances in the Bible (David’s encounter with Goliath is another) in which heroism is attributed to a child.

Jewish tradition, however, ascribes to her a gesture more remarkable still:

Amram was the most eminent man of his generation. Aware that Pharaoh had decreed, “Every son who is born shall be cast into the river” [Ex. 1:22], he said, “In vain do we labour,” and was the first to divorce his wife. After that, all the Israelite men divorced their wives. Then his daughter said to him, “Father, your decree is more cruel than Pharaoh’s. He has decreed only against the males; you decree against both males and females. Pharaoh decreed only concerning this world, while you decree concerning both this world and the next. Since Pharaoh is a wicked man, there is doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not; but since you are a righteous man, your decree is sure to be fulfilled.” At once, he went and took back his wife, and so did all the others.

Sota 12a

What are we to make of this strange suggestion?

Rabbinic commentaries of this kind are sometimes described as “legends.” That is not what they are. In filling the gaps of the biblical text – reading between its lines – Israel’s early rabbinic sages were doing two things. Firstly, they were listening (the word “reading” is inadequate) to the nuances of the biblical text. In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, midrash, or biblical exposition, became the rabbinic substitute for prophecy. God was “hiding His face.” He was no longer manifest in Israel’s fate. But He had left something of His presence behind: the Torah, the covenant, His “marriage contract” with the Jewish people. When two lovers are present, they rejoice in one another’s company. When one disappears and the other awaits his return, she reads and rereads the letters he wrote her, sensitive to every detail, discovering aspects of his character she had not noticed before, and bringing back a vestige of presence in the midst of absence. That is midrash: the close reading of the Torah, in the wake of national tragedy, as God’s love letters to His people.

Listening to the biblical passage (Deut. 26:5–8) that forms the centerpiece of the Haggada, the sages heard in the phrase “He [God] saw our oppression” an echo of other contexts in which the word “oppression” appears and has a specific sexual connotation. “Oppression,” as we say in the Haggada, refers to “the separation of husband from wife.” From this hint they then reconstructed the following scenario: once Pharaoh had decreed that all male babies were to be murdered, the Israelites decided not to have children. To bring a child into the world with a fifty-fifty chance of being killed was taking an unwarranted risk with life. For that reason the men separated from their wives. How, then, was Moses born? Something and someone must have changed the Israelites’ mind, specifically in the case of Amram, Moses’ father. That must have been either Yocheved or Miriam, the only other figures to feature in the narrative at this point. Of the two, Miriam is the obvious candidate. The text says nothing more about Yocheved than that she bore a child, whereas Miriam’s resourcefulness shines from every word written about her. It must, therefore, have been Miriam who persuaded her father that he was wrong, that his decision, logical and ethical though it was, lacked one thing, namely faith itself. That is the textual basis for the story.

Midrash is a child of prophecy, though, in another sense. The prophets were interpreters of history. They spoke to their generation and their times. Lacking prophecy, the rabbis turned to the biblical text to hear, within the word spoken for all time, the specific resonance for this time. Unlike peshat, the “plain, simple, or accepted meaning,” midrash is the hermeneutic quest for the meaning of the text as if it were spoken not then but now. Midrash is interpretation in the context of covenantal time, the word spoken in the past but still active in the present. It is an exercise in conscious and deliberate anachronism (the secular equivalent would be a performance of a Shakespeare tragedy in modern dress, the better to feel its force as contemporary, rather than classical, drama). It is prophetic in the sense of interpreting current events in the light of the Divine word. Midrash is the attempt on the part of the sages to understand their own times as a continuation of the narrative of the covenant. In what historical context can we place the story they told of Miriam?

One of the most traumatic of all periods in Jewish history was the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion and its brutal suppression by the Roman emperor Hadrian. Israel was devastated and most of its leading rabbis put to death. The practice of Judaism – including the teaching of Torah and the act of circumcision – was proscribed on pain of death. A talmudic passage reveals the depth of despair the surviving rabbis felt at that time:

From the day a government has come to power that issues cruel decrees against us and forbids us the observance of the Torah and the precepts, and does not allow us to enter into the “week of the son,” we ought by rights to bind ourselves not to marry and have children, so that the seed of Abraham our father will come to an end of itself. However, let Israel go their way: it is better that they should err in ignorance than presumptuously.

Bava Batra 60b

This is a passage of intense pathos. The rabbis are saying nothing less than that it would have been reasonable at that point to let the Jewish people cease to be. They had been defeated by the Romans. Their last hope of recovering national sovereignty had failed. The thing that mattered above all – the practice of Judaism – was now banned. Here, therefore, is the historical context of the story the rabbis told about Miriam and Amram. It was not just in Egypt in the age of Ramses II, but in Israel in the days of Hadrian, that Jews contemplated a decision not to bring future generations into being.

The talmudic passage ends on a curious note: “Let Israel go their way.” The rabbis are saying that were they to issue the decree that seemed warranted by the circumstances – no more Jewish marriages or children – people would not listen. That is how Jews and Judaism survived. Ordinary people, suggests the Talmud, sometimes have more faith than their spiritual leaders. This is an astonishing admission, but it is not the only time the sages made it. Commenting on one of Moses’ first challenges to God, “They [the Israelites] will not believe me” (Ex. 4:1), they said, “God replied: they are believers, the children of believers, but there will come a time when you yourself will not believe” (Shabbat 97a).

We now sense the full depth of the encounter between daughter and father as the sages understood it. Amram was, they conjectured, “the most eminent man of his generation.” According to one tradition he was head of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinic supreme court. Yet it is not he but his daughter who rightly understood the spiritual demand of the moment: not despair, but faith in the future. The sociologist Peter Berger calls hope a “signal of transcendence” (A Rumor of Angels). There is nothing that logically justifies hope: if there were, it would not be hope but something else – confidence, certainty, assurance, foreknowledge. Hope is the narrow bridge across which we must walk if we are to pass from slavery to redemption, from the valley of death to the open spaces of new life. That hope, said the sages, is more likely to come from the young than the old, women (the bearers of new life) than men. It is no small testimony to their depth of self-knowledge that the rabbis attributed more faith to a young girl than to Amram, leader of his generation.

The third figure is Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescued Moses, knowing he was a Hebrew child. Again it is impossible not to be moved by this act of compassion by one who knew all too well what was at stake. To raise an Israelite child in the palace of the very ruler who had issued the decree of death took moral determination of a high order. A midrash states that when her handmaids saw that she was set on rescuing the baby, they said, “It is the way of the world that when a king issues a decree, even if the whole world does not obey it, his own children and household do” (Exodus Raba 1:23). For any Egyptian to protect a Hebrew child was hazardous; to do so in the royal palace doubly so. In Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, there is an avenue of remembrance for the righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives during the Nazi years. Pharaoh’s daughter created the precedent.

It is notable that she gives Moses his name (Mses – as in Ramses – is in fact an Egyptian word meaning “child”). Names, in the Torah, are given by parents and in rare cases ordained or changed by God. Moses is the exception. Again a midrash emphasises the point:

“This is the reward for doers of kindness: although Moses had many names, the only one by which he is known through the Torah is that given to him by Pharaoh’s daughter. Even the Holy One, blessed be He, did not call him by any other name.”

Exodus Rabbah 1:26

Pharaoh’s daughter is not mentioned by name. There is, however, a reference in the Book of Chronicles (I 4:18) to a certain “Bitya, daughter of Pharaoh,” and tradition identifies her with Moses’ rescuer. The name “Bitya” means “daughter of God” and the rabbis speculated that this was not her original name, but one given to her by God in recognition of her kindness:

“Moses was not your son,” He said, “yet you called him your son. You, too, are not My daughter, but I shall call you My daughter.”

Leviticus Rabbah 1:3

The fourth heroine is Moses’ wife, Tzippora, daughter of the Midianite priest Yitro. The first thing that strikes us about Tzippora is that she was willing to accompany Moses on his return to Egypt, despite the hazards of the journey, the risk of the mission, and the fact that the Israelites were not her people, even if she had adopted their faith. There is, however, one moment during the return journey when Tzippora saves Moses’ life. The passage is cryptic in the extreme:

During the journey, while they were encamped for the night, God confronted Moses and wanted to kill him. Tzippora took a stone knife and cut off her son’s foreskin, throwing it down at Moses’ feet; then she said: “Blood bridegroom by circumcision.”

Ex. 4:24–5

These two verses contain multiple ambiguities. God was angry with Moses, evidently because he had not circumcised his son. According to some, Moses delayed the operation because of the debilitating effect of the journey. According to others, he had agreed with his father-in-law that at least one of his children would be brought up not as an Israelite but as a Midianite. Whatever the interpretation, Tzippora’s prompt action saved a life. One midrash attributes to her the level of righteousness of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

The fifth and sixth are the midwives, Shifra and Pua, whom Pharaoh instructed to kill every male Hebrew child. The Torah then reports:

The midwives feared God and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded; they allowed the infant boys to live. The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why did you do this? You let the boys live.” The midwives replied to Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians: they know how to deliver; they can give birth even before a midwife gets to them.” God was good to the midwives, and the people increased and became very numerous. Because the midwives feared God, He made them houses [of their own].

Ex. 1:17–21

Who were Shifra and Pua? The truth is, we do not know. One midrash identifies them with Yocheved and Miriam, using a midrashic technique of relating the unknown to the known. However, in describing them the Torah uses an ambiguous phrase. It calls them hameyaldot ha’Ivriot, which could mean either “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives to the Hebrews.” On the second interpretation, they may not have been Hebrews at all, but Egyptians. This is the view taken, among others, by the scholar and statesman Don Isaac Abrabanel and the Italian commentator Samuel David Luzzatto. Luzzatto’s reasoning is simple: could Pharaoh realistically have expected Hebrew women to murder their own people’s children? Rather than decide one way or the other, it seems clear that the Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know who they were or which people they belonged to because their particular form of moral courage transcended nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a “crime against humanity,” and the fact that they refused to do so tells us something about the ethical parameters of humanity as such. Though Shifra and Pua are seemingly minor figures in the narrative, they are giants in the story of humanity, and since their behaviour has bearing on more recent events, it is a tale that deserves to be set in its full historical context.

One landmark of modern international law was the judgment against Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials of 1946. This established that there are certain crimes in relation to which the claim “I was obeying orders” is no defence. There are laws higher than those of the state. “Crimes against humanity” remain crimes, whatever the law of the land or the orders of a government. There are instructions one is morally bound to disobey, times when civil disobedience is the morally necessary response. This principle, attributed to the American writer Henry David Thoreau in 1848, inspired many of those who fought for the abolition of slavery in the United States, as well as the late Martin Luther King in his struggle for black civil rights in the 1960s. At stake in the principle of civil disobedience is a theory of the moral limits of the state.

Until relatively modern times rulers had absolute authority, tempered only by the concessions they had to make to powerful groups. Not only was this true in antiquity. It remained the case until the late seventeenth century, when figures like John Locke began to develop theories of liberty, social contract, and human rights (see the essay “The Universal Story,” also in the Jonathan Sacks Haggada). Much, even most, religious thought until then was dedicated to justifying existing structures of power. That was the function of myth, and later of the concept of the “divine right of kings.” In such societies, the idea that there might be moral limits to power would have been unthinkable. To challenge the king was to defy reality itself.

Against this background, biblical monotheism was a revolution thousands of years in advance of the culture of the West. The Exodus was more than the liberation of slaves. It was a redrawing of the moral and political landscape. If the image of God is to be found not only in kings but in the human person as such, then all power that dehumanises is ipso facto an abuse of power. Slavery, seen by all ancient thinkers as part of the natural order, becomes morally wrong, an offence not only against man but against God. When God tells Moses to talk to Pharaoh of “My son, My firstborn, Israel” (Ex. 4:22), He is announcing to the most powerful ruler of the ancient world that though these people may be your slaves, they are My children. The story of the plagues in Egypt is as much political as theological. Theologically it affirms that the Creator of nature is supreme over the forces of nature. Politically it declares that over every human power stands the sovereignty of God, defender and guarantor of the rights of humankind.

In such a worldview, the idea of civil disobedience is not unthinkable but self-evident. The very notion of authority is defined by the transcendence of right over might, morality over power. Even when wrongfully challenged, leadership has to justify itself. Hence Moses’ words to God during the Korach rebellion: “I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them” (Ex. 15:16). In one of the world-changing moments in history, social criticism was born in Israel simultaneously with institutionalisation of power. No sooner were there kings in Israel than there were prophets mandated by God to criticise them when they abused their power.

Not only is this true of Israel’s internal politics. It applied equally when Jews found themselves in exile under foreign powers. The Books of Daniel and Esther – the classic exilic texts – are variations on the theme of civil disobedience. Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria refuse to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. Daniel disobeys Darius’ command to worship him alone. Mordechai will not bow down to Haman. A “stiff-necked people” may sometimes find it hard to worship God, but it will certainly worship nothing less. As the Talmud puts it: “If there is a conflict between the words of the master and the words of the disciple, whose words should one obey?” (Kiddushin 42b) No human order, whoever issues it, overrides the commands of God.

This is further evidence of the case I have argued in chapters 9–11, that the Western tradition of liberty is built less on the foundations of ancient Greece than on the Hebrew Bible. What Greece lacked was a theory of the moral limits of power. As Lord Acton noted, Athenian democracy failed because the Greeks believed that “there is no law superior to that of the State – the lawgiver is above the law” (History of Freedom). The result, he writes, was that “the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralizing influence on the illustrious democracy of Athens,” as it has so often since. Greek political thought assumes the sovereignty of the state. Jewish political thought assumes the sovereignty of God, and hence the moral limits of the state. That is why the Torah is the foundational text of liberty and human rights, rather than the Greek political classics.

How moving it is, therefore, that the first recorded instance of civil disobedience – predating Thoreau by more than three millennia – is the story of Shifra and Pua, two ordinary women defying Pharaoh in the name of simple humanity. We know nothing else about them, not even which nation they came from. All we know is that they “feared God and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded.” In those fateful words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Pua, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral landscape of the world.

One further note is in place. Though Greek literature does not know of the concept of civil disobedience, it does contain one famous case where an individual defies the king, not in the name of justice but out of loyalty to established custom and family feeling – Sophocles’ Antigone, who buries her brother in defiance of King Creon’s order that he stay unburied as a traitor. The contrast between Sophocles and the Bible is fascinating. Antigone is a tragedy: the eponymous heroine pays for her defiance with her life. The story of Shifra and Pua is not a tragedy. It ends with a curious phrase. God “made them houses.” What does this mean? Luzzatto offers an insightful interpretation. Sometimes women become midwives when they are unable to have children of their own. That, he suggests, was the case with Shifra and Pua. Because they saved children’s lives, God rewards them – measure for measure – with the blessing of their own children (“houses” = families). In Judaism the moral life is not inescapably tragic, because neither the universe nor fate is blind.

“By merit of the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt” (Sota 11b). There are many midrashic traditions about the faithfulness of women during the days of oppression in Egypt and the subsequent journey to the Promised Land (according to the sages, they joined neither in worship of the Golden Calf, nor in the doubts that led to the episode of the spies). I have chosen these six examples, however, because they are explicit in the biblical text. Each is a vignette of courage in the face of power, and faith in the presence of despair. The story of the Exodus as we tell it at the seder table is about God, not about human beings. Even Moses is mentioned only once in the Pesach Haggada, as an aside. Yet there was a human aspect to the story, and it is about one great man and six outstanding women.

Moses became a hero because he had “greatness thrust upon him.” He led Israel not because he chose to, but because he was commanded by God. In contrast to the story we know of Moses, we have Yocheved, Miriam, Bitya, Tzippora, Shifra, and Pua. These women were not commanded. They acted because they had a strong moral sense, indomitable humanity, and an intuitive grasp of what heaven asks of us on earth: they “feared God.” The monument the Torah erects to freedom, the sovereignty of God, and the sanctity of life bears the names of those women who by their courage showed that though tyranny is strong, compassion is stronger still.