By Dina Pinner
This week’s parashah marks the beginning of a new book. Finished are all the family squabbles of Genesis; now begin battles between those who would be masters. No more sisters and brothers wrangling for the attentions of unavailable husbands and fathers. In this book of Shemot, gods and men battle with pyrotechnics and magic tricks as a nation is born.
And we begin with a parashah packed with personal narrative running concurrently with unimaginable oppression and cruelty.
A new king ‘who doesn’t know Joseph’ (Ch.1 v.8) has risen to the throne preaching fear of the foreigner. All that Joseph contributed to Egypt is forgotten, as is the devotion of the Hebrews, and they are now deeply distrusted strangers. They are beaten as slaves as the midwives are told to kill all boy babies born.
We learn about the early life of Moses, who reluctantly declares, ‘Hineini’, ‘Here I am’, when called upon by the burning bush (Ch.3 v.4) to become a partner with God and an adversary to Pharaoh. We meet Moses’s brother, Aaron, who will help him every step of the way, and we follow them as they approach Pharaoh again and again. We hear the cries of an oppressed people, downtrodden yet furious with those who might help them.
Yet the Midrash on Exodus Ch.1 v.12 tells us that it is ‘because of the righteous women’ that the redemption from Egypt came about. It is not, apparently, because of all the men to whom so much space is dedicated, but the barely mentioned women, whose entire storyline is essentially finished by the end of the first Aliya. So what about them is so significant that the tradition so deliberately congratulates their actions?
This parashah offers us different models of resistance. Moses, seeing the barbaric extension of unfair laws, commits a murder, but, terrified by possible repercussions, runs into hiding, despite his position in society.
The women, however, tasked with murdering newborns, lie directly to Pharaoh’s face, using his own prejudices to protect themselves (Ch.1 v.19). Moses’s mother and sister ignore Pharaoh’s edict, and even his own daughter defies him.
Here, women’s bodies are no incidental plot-line thrown in to move forward the story or explain the motives of a male character. These midwives, Shifra and Puah, like Yocheved and Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s mother and sister, have names and are essential to the narrative. Everything beyond this point is dependent upon these first acts of civil disobedience.
Long before God even notices the cries of Israel, Shifra, Puah and all the other women are resisting the orders of the oppressor by literally choosing life.
For the tradition, the women’s righteous act is having children during terrible times. Yet surely it is the capacity to maintain relationships and enjoy life, even when all is awful, that is truly remarkable, particularly when faced with so many who would begrudge any comfort sought by the stranger?
While there is much violence and bravado in the book of Shemot, these women work together beyond the class system, literally ensuring survival – as the men do battle over whose stick (and god) is bigger and better.
Dina Pinner is co-founding director of KayamaMoms, support and advocacy group for Jewish single mothers by choice. She lives in Jerusalem and is also a teacher and a poet.