This learning has been developed with NCJW, the National Council of Jewish Women.
On both sides of the Exodus narrative, we find stories of women making change and bravely working to create a more just world. In fact, there are ten women--five at the beginning of the story, and five waiting for us as we get close to the Promised Land--who show us different ways to deal with abuses and imbalances of power to the best of their capacities, in the ways that they are able, modeling for us how we might be able to do the same.
At the end of the book of Genesis, Jacob and his family came down to Egypt during a time of famine, with the blessing and help of the Pharaoh who recognized and made use of Joseph's talents as a vizier. In the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh—a new Pharaoh who has arisen and “did not know Joseph,” does not have the same relationship with or memory of the Israelites and what they have already offered to Egypt—looks at the “foreign” people who have come to his land and begins to be concerned about the impact of shifting demographics on his sovereignty. He begins to subject the Israelites to harsh treatment--a vulnerable population exploited as an easily accessible labor force.
But even abusing the Israelites’ labor capacity is not enough. Pharaoh—paving the way for so many atrocity-committing despots to follow—realizes that the best way to control this population is to go after its children.
In this horrific millieu we meet two midwives — Shifra and Puah — who choose to bravely engage in civil disobedience: They let the boys they’re tasked to kill live, and when discovered, tell Pharaoh that they simply couldn’t get there in time. These women presumably had little power in the imperial system, yet they put themselves at great risk to defy official orders.
The midwives engage in a skillful game of double-entendre. On the one hand, using the word, chayot--full of life--could refer to the Israelite women's vitality. it could be that they are, as Rashi suggests, as skillful as midwives. It could be, however, that it refers to the other meaning of the word--as the Talmud quoted by Rashi suggests. That they're animals.
One wonders if they might not be intentionally deploying dehumanizing language in their explanation to Pharaoh. After all, referring to a population of human beings as animals—or vermin, or insects—is such a key part of the genocidal playbook that the human rights organization Genocide Watch listed it as one of the eight stages of genocide in a briefing paper presented to the United States State Department in 1996.
It may be that the midwives, understanding Pharaoh’s agenda and hearing his rhetoric, think that their ruse will be more likely to be believed if they present it to him in his own language, or in language that seems to support his own beliefs or agenda. If they present as true believers, will Pharaoh be less likely to investigate their claims? Maybe. Regardless, their act of civil disobedience is indeed brave—their own lives were very clearly at stake—and has the ability to impact many lives.
It’s even possible that they were able to disrupt the system on a larger scale, as Ibn Ezra suggests.
Regardless, despite the fact that that these women presumably had little power in the imperial system, they put themselves at great risk, using the access they did have in order to defy official orders.
Not every woman in the story has equal levels of influence.
Yocheved, Moses’ mother, does what little she can within the straits of peril in which she is placed.
When she sees her son and exclaims, ki tov--this is good--there are profound resonances. That is, the same language appears at a crucial moment earlier in the Torah—during the creation of the world.
We are to see this Israelite baby as not disposable, dehumanized, as Pharoah does. We are not to see him as part of an enslaved labor force or a threat to the stability of a country. We are to see him—as we are to see every human, even or especially those who have been oppressed and dehumanized by those in power—as part of Creation itself, as whole and beautiful and created in the divine image. And we are to see that when Yocheved creates life, she is, the text implies, like God. She has brought something into being, and when she looks at her creation, she regards him with a divine eye.
Her naming this child as whole, and holy, is in itself an act of resistance. Seeing the child’s holiness and taking action—a real risk—to try to save him are linked, are part of the same verse.
The infant Moses is found in the Nile by no less than Pharaoh’s daughter, the daughter of ultimate privilege in this system, who takes a number of actions in a few short verses. Of the seven verbs here in quick succession, the only one that was within her usual routine was the coming down, the bathing. She goes out of her way in every other sense—she notices the basket, sends for it, opens it, identifies the child and takes pity. She could have made the choice to not notice, to not see—to stay comfortable and ignore pain, as is so easy to do when one is on the lucky side of oppression. But she not only keeps her eyes open, she chooses to get involved—to get the basket, to open it, to connect what she’s seeing in front of her with the horrors she knows to be taking place elsewhere, hidden from view. And, most crucially, to let herself feel for this infant—to feel mercy, the opposite of what was happening in her own father’s hardening heart. Then, she not only connects the need happening in front of her to the larger systemic atrocities happening around her, but she names that connection—she brings in those around her into the need in the moment.
Then she makes another decision—to take action. She decides to keep the baby—to save a life, directly violating her own father’s violent decree.
Did her father know? Did she stand up to him, try to convince him to reverse his edict, either before or after this episode? Was she too afraid? Did she have great power, as Egyptian royalty, the child of the monarch himself? Or was she given only ancillary privilege, the mere female offspring of one of Pharaoh’s many wives or consorts? We don’t know. We do, however, know that she was safe, certainly much safer than any of the Israelites, and that she used what influence she did have for the sake of at least one life.
Moses’s sister, Miriam—the fifth woman to show us courage in these two short chapters—has been watching from a distance; when she sees Pharaoh’s daughter look compassionately at her brother and say—presumably, with a tone matching the feeling of pity, that “this must be a Hebrew child,” she bravely steps forward and asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she should fetch a Hebrew wet-nurse to feed the baby.
It’s easy to portray Miriam as a sweet, plucky girl in this exchange, but what was demanded of her was more than just high spirits. The power dynamics here are real. She initiates conversation with a woman who could get her and her whole family killed. She risks the possibility of outing herself as connected to this infant, as part of a plan to defy Pharaoh’s official edict—to a member of his own family. And yet, the stakes were insurmountably high—her brother’s life—so she does what must be done.
None of these women were able to implement comprehensive systemic change. None of them were able to end Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites. But each did what she could, using her power and capabilities to try to outmaneuver the system to the best of her ability. The women of Exodus show us that, even when we can't change everything, we’re still obligated to do what we can, within our sphere of power and influence, to try to protect and preserve life — even at great personal risk, and sometimes in ways that are even subversive.
Of course, there are other models of changemaking as well.
Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah come to Moses after their father, Tzlaphchad, has died. They had no brothers, so their inheritance is to be parceled out to distant male relatives. They ask for their inheritance, using the language of the system they are trying to change. Moses and God confer, and it’s decided that this case calls for structural transformation: a large-scale rewriting of inheritance laws. On the other side of freedom, after crossing the Red Sea and everything that followed, the Israelites had to figure out how to create a just society — and even then, it was a work in progress.
The daughters of Tzlaphchad challenge authority by going through established chains of command. When the system is reasonable but not perfect, it often makes sense to try to move the needle according to established rules.
Different tactics serve us in different contexts. Sometimes we are dealing with a Pharaoh who doesn’t care what we think, and sometimes with a government that is, at least, workable. Sometimes we need to create change by working within the system, and sometimes we need to do everything in our capacity agitating from outside it. Sometimes both of these approaches are needed at the same time, and different people serve different roles in helping to push for change. The 10 women bookending the Exodus story teach us that we have a range of tools to fight for justice at our disposal, that what we do and how we do it depend both on the situation and on each of our individual capacities and talents.
The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) is a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who turn progressive ideals into action. Inspired by Jewish values, NCJW strives for social justice by improving the quality of life for women, children, and families and by safeguarding individual rights and freedoms. Learn more at NCJW.org