The Heroines of the Exodus

This week we began the second book of the Torah known as Shemot or Exodus.[1] Everyone is familiar with the hero of this story, Moshe (Moses) and his brother Aharon. Sadly many are unaware of the instrumental role Jewish women played in the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt.

The Torah tells us that Pharaoh issued a cruel edict to the Hebrew midwives that they must murder every male child born to the Hebrew women. However, in one of the earliest recordings of civil disobedience, we see that the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, disobeyed the royal decree. The Torah tells us that “the midwives feared G-d and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live” (Shemot 1:17).  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that one who fears G-d fears no one else – not even powerful people like Pharaoh – and one who fears G-d has the courage to do the right thing even in extraordinary circumstances.

The famous medieval commentator, Rashi (1040-1105), writes that Shifrah was in fact, Yocheved, the mother of Moshe, and Puah was Miryam, Moshe’s sister. He explains that Yocheved was called Shifrah (beautiful), because she used to beautify the infants and smooth their limbs. Miryam was called Puah (a word that denotes calling out) because she cooed and whispered to the infants.

Rabbi Yissochar Frand asks why the Torah chooses to call these two women by names that memorialize the care they showed the infants. These women saved lives! Shouldn’t they have been given names that memorialize their heroic rescue of Jewish children? Rabbi Frand answers that true greatness is measured by the little things we do and the good deeds we perform when no one is watching. It’s the small acts of kindness that reveal the depth of our character. Many ordinary people can occasionally have a moment of heroism by performing an act of greatness. However, after the headlines are made and the cameras have stopped flashing, the person goes right back to being an average person. Such greatness is superficial. After such an achievement, a person can pat themselves on the back for a deed well-done and carry on with the rest of their lives as if nothing had happened. Rather, it is small but extraordinary deeds that reveal one’s greatness. Shifrah and Puah were bravely saving lives yet they still had the sensitivity and thoughtfulness to care for the babies by beautifying and soothing them.[2]

The Talmud tells us that during the time of Pharaoh’s decree against the baby boys, the Jewish men decided to stop having children altogether. The men reasoned that there was no point in having children if the children were destined to be killed. It was the righteous Jewish women of that generation who convinced their husbands otherwise by beautifying themselves and seducing them into having relations. While the men despaired, the women remained cognizant that their sole obligation was to follow G-d’s commandments and trust that G-d would take care of the rest. They decided to continue following the commandment of bringing children into the world all the while trusting that G-d would soon mete out punishment to the Egyptians and redeem the Jewish people.[3] It is for this reason that the Talmud teaches: “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b).

[1] The word, “Shemot” bears no similarity in translation to the English word, “Exodus.” In English ‘shemot’ means ‘names.’

[2] Rabbi Frand on the Parshah. Artscroll Series, 87-88