The Real Housewives of Egypt
In this week’s Torah portion we begin the second of the five books of Moses – Exodus/Shemot. The fate of the Israelites has changed drastically from the good old days of Joseph and his small clan living in comfort, ease and acceptance with their Egyptian hosts. As they became more numerous, stronger and more prominent, Pharaoh and the Egyptians start to get a bit anxious, fearing that their once pure Egyptian society will become filled with a foreign element.
The typical concerns of loyalty and distrust set in and the recent history of Joseph literally saving Egypt from ruin is quickly forgotten. A series of new and oppressive policies are put into effect culminating with the brutal and vile decree that any male Jewish child was to be put to death at birth while only the females would be allowed to live.
It is quite clear why Pharaoh would make this distinction between the newborn boys and girls. As the Torah narrates, he is concerned that if there is war with another nation then the foreign Israelites could become a fifth column in joining the enemy. Therefore they needed to be subjugated and thereby neutralized. So naturally his concern is focused on the menfolk who are involved in war and politics – true today but even moreso in those days – and he wishes to inhibit their growth. He had little concern for the women as they didn’t pose this danger to his people or his power.
At least that’s what he thinks. Little did he know.
And herein lies the biggest mistake Pharaoh made in his career, and in his calculations to try to render impotent any national aspirations of the future Jewish nation. He was convinced that if he took care of the men, he’d be fine. In his mind, it was the males who could cause all the problems. But as we’re about to see in the parsha, he was sorely mistaken for not taking into account the power and contribution of the women – both Jewish and not – time and again – in ensuring that the Israelites would grow into a strong and vibrant people.
The first example of this was the refusal of the midwives, Shifra and Puah to kill the Jewish babies and their quick thinking in covering up their heroic acts. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l has pointed out, this was probably the first historic example of civil disobedience where individuals risked great personal loss to act according to their moral and ethical conscience and not abide by evil, immoral laws of the land. No, “I was just following orders” excuses here when these brave women risked everything to save Jewish babies.
The second example is Miriam who also risks her safety and security by defying Pharaoh’s orders when sending her little brother Moses down the Nile River in a basket, hoping for a miracle to save him – which thankfully occurs. Without her courageous act, Moshe would never have survived.
And who indeed then steps to the fore and becomes that agent to deliver the future leader, redeemer and lawgiver who will eventually wreak havoc on Egypt? None other than the daughter of Pharaoh himself when she takes pity on the baby who will one day turn her father’s empire upside down! Talk about irony.
And finally, many years later when Moshe reluctantly accepts his mission of freeing the Jewish nation from slavery, there is an obscure event in the Torah where “God sought to kill Moshe.” Without getting into the details of what exactly happened (see my video for that), one thing is clear from the event: Moshe’s wife, Tzipporah saves his hide and God spares his life.
What we see is that time and time and time… and time again it is the women who come to the rescue when we talk about the survival and continuation of the Jewish nation. They were present at all the key points to keep the Jewish people alive and well and to ensure that Israel’s greatest leader would remain safe and sound.
- It’s the midwives – who may not have even been Jewish according to some commentaries – that risked personal safety and security to save Jewish baby boys.
- It was Miriam who was willing to go against Egyptian law and oversaw her little brother’s deliverance.
- It was Pharaoh’s own daughter who could not suppress her motherly instincts and snubbed her father’s decree to save and raise Moshe as her own son.
- And finally the Supergirl cape passed onto Tzipporah who, in the nick of time, acts swiftly and decisively in saving her husband’s life.
Foolish Pharaoh thought that if he could take care of the males then all his problems would be solved and there would be no future threat to his people. He never considered that is was the quiet and relentless power of the women who, at each juncture and opportunity, rose to the occasion and did whatever was necessary to ensure that the Jewish people would grow and become strong. It was the women who could care less about prevailing norms, laws and conventions and took decisive actions into their own hands to save and strengthen the Jewish people and its greatest leader, Moshe.
And just as we have a tradition that the Jewish people merited Redemption through the women in Egypt, so too our tradition tells us we will merit the ultimate Redemption via the women again. It won’t be the men who get the job done of bringing Mashiach, but the women.
So ladies you need to step up to the plate because you hold the keys to making our people strong, viable, spiritual and great. You have the power to make sure our bond and covenant with God is intact and grows to its ultimate destiny.
Redemption is in your hands. We await.
Across my home has grown the shadow
Of a cruel and senseless hand
Though in some strong hearts
The love and truth remain
And it has taken me this distance
And a woman’s smile to learn
That my heart remains among them
And to them I must return