Parshat Shemot

FRIDAY, January 5th

The opening chapters of the Book of Shemot are remarkable in that all the heroes of the story (except for Moshe) are women.   We read about Shifra and Puah, two midwives who heroically resist Pharaoh’s demand that they murder newborn Hebrew boys. We read about how Yochebed hides her infant son and then, when it becomes impossible to hide him from the Egyptians any longer, how she puts him into a basket in the river holding out hope that he might be rescued.  We read about how Pharaoh’s daughter saves the boy from the river, and, by adopting him as her own, also saves him from Pharaoh’s decree against the Hebrew babies. We read about how Miriam arranges for Moshe to be raised by his biological mother, to insure that Moshe will grow up with a connection to his family and his people.  Later we will read how Tzipora saves the day when her husband Moshe (or son—the text is ambiguous) is attacked by an angel, by quickly circumcising her son, thus putting a halt to the angelic attack.  It is only through the courageous actions of these women, both Israelite and gentile, that Moshe is able to rise to the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

When we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, we often emphasize the heroic men—Moshe and Aharon, and gloss over the female heroes of the story, but the Torah goes out of its way to show the heroism of the women in the story.  Their heroism, which is mostly demonstrated in less public ways than that of the men in the story, and is largely focused in areas that are traditionally seen as women’s sphere—childbirth and child-rearing, is no less important or noteworthy than the more public heroism of the men.

Today we live in a world where women are able to occupy more and more roles that had in the past been the exclusive province of men. The progress towards equality of rights and of opportunity for women and men is undoubtedly a positive thing. However, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the professional and communal roles have been traditionally occupied by men are somehow intrinsically superior to those that have been traditionally occupied by women, just because, out of our own biases, we have attached more praise and prestige to those roles.

Those women and men who choose to dedicate themselves to caring for and raising the next generation, whether in their own families or as professional educators and caregivers, are every bit as important, praiseworthy, and even heroic, as our most celebrated public figures.  Indeed, as the opening chapters of Shemot demonstrate, the survival and redemption of our people depend on them.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein