Posted on December 24, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
This brief commentary is dedicated to the memory of Shuey Horowitz and Cindy Andrews, both of whom were what the Talmud would call “women of consequence.”(1)
In this week’s parashah, the Torah offers a lesson that would be significant had it been written today. That it was written some 2,800 years ago is truly amazing.
Redemption will come when women are fully free and empowered. Or, as the 19th century abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sarah Moore Grimké put it, when “…our brethren… will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”(2)
Parashat Sh’mot is the story of our people’s descent into slavery, persecution, and degradation that begins with a paranoid Pharaoh who decrees the death of all male Hebrew babies. It is also the story of five courageous women whose bold actions led to our people’s salvation.
Enter the first heroic women, the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah, who refused to obey Pharaoh’s evil command. The Torah says of these non-Israelite women that they “feared God,” and so risked their lives to preserve life.
Next, we meet Yocheved, who hides her baby boy, first at home and then in a basket in the bullrushes of the Nile. How significant that it was not the baby’s father, Amram, but his mother, Yocheved, who preserved the life of the boy who would grow up to be Moses, the great man who would confront Pharaoh and liberate his people.
Of course, it is clear from the narrative arc that Yocheved did not act alone. Her daughter, Miriam, Moses’ sister, engaged in reconnaissance and likely recruited the ultimate heroine of this story, Pharaoh’s daughter.
Pharaoh’s daughter is a profound example of the use of power and privilege for the advancement of goodness and the pursuit of justice. She is a righteous woman who has the audacity to challenge the accepted norms of her world and defy the will of her tyrannical father by adopting a Hebrew baby. She is subversive and revolutionary and succeeds in changing the course of history. And we don’t even know her name! She is known only as “Pharaoh’s daughter.”
Why is that? The answer, I believe, is to remind us of the selflessness of her actions. She had no self-interest, only the higher cause of human freedom and dignity. And her anonymity serves another of the Torah’s purposes — to remind us that any one of us can be that type of person.
Nowhere else in the Bible are the actions of women given center stage in the telling of our story as we see here in Parashat Sh’mot. Why are the exemplary deeds of these five women presented as the source of our redemption?
Perhaps it is to convey the truth that the source of our ultimate redemption is right here before us in the form of women who represent not only 50 percent of our strength but also embody the life-giving essence of our humanity. Only when women achieve full equality, freedom and empowerment will we be blessed to see the flowering of our redemption.
1. My appreciation to Rabbi Jodi Gordon who used this Talmudic locution in her moving eulogy for Cindy Andrews.
2. Sarah Grimké, quoted in Ceplair, Public Years, 208; also quoted by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her first oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the 1973 case of Frontiero v. Richardson.