Ten Women in Torah: Models of Working Towards Justice

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.

(ח) וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃ (ט) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ (י) הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (יא) וַיָּשִׂ֤ימוּ עָלָיו֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מִסִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן עַנֹּת֖וֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־רַעַמְסֵֽס׃ (יב) וְכַאֲשֶׁר֙ יְעַנּ֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ כֵּ֥ן יִרְבֶּ֖ה וְכֵ֣ן יִפְרֹ֑ץ וַיָּקֻ֕צוּ מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (יג) וַיַּעֲבִ֧דוּ מִצְרַ֛יִם אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃ (יד) וַיְמָרְר֨וּ אֶת־חַיֵּיהֶ֜ם בַּעֲבֹדָ֣ה קָשָׁ֗ה בְּחֹ֙מֶר֙ וּבִלְבֵנִ֔ים וּבְכָל־עֲבֹדָ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה אֵ֚ת כָּל־עֲבֹ֣דָתָ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־עָבְד֥וּ בָהֶ֖ם בְּפָֽרֶךְ׃ (טו) וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה׃ (טז) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃ (יז) וַתִּירֶ֤אןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹקִ֔ים וְלֹ֣א עָשׂ֔וּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר אֲלֵיהֶ֖ן מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרָ֑יִם וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃ (יח) וַיִּקְרָ֤א מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֔ת וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֔ן מַדּ֥וּעַ עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ן הַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֑ה וַתְּחַיֶּ֖יןָ אֶת־הַיְלָדִֽים׃ (יט) וַתֹּאמַ֤רְןָ הַֽמְיַלְּדֹת֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה כִּ֣י לֹ֧א כַנָּשִׁ֛ים הַמִּצְרִיֹּ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה בְּטֶ֨רֶם תָּב֧וֹא אֲלֵהֶ֛ן הַמְיַלֶּ֖דֶת וְיָלָֽדוּ׃

(8) A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. (9) And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. (10) Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” (11) So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. (12) But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites. (13) The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites (14) the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field. (15) The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, (16) saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” (17) The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (18) So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” (19) The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.”

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.

(א) כי חיות הנה. בְּקִיאוֹת כַּמְיַלְּדוֹת, תַּרְגּוּם מְיַלְּדוֹת חַיָּתָא. וְרַבּוֹתֵינוּ דָּרְשׁוּ הֲרֵי הֵן מְשׁוּלוֹת כְּחַיּוֹת הַשָּׂדֶה (סוטה י"א), שֶׁאֵינָן צְרִיכוֹת מְיַלְּדוֹת. וְהֵיכָן מְשׁוּלוֹת לְחַיּוֹת? גּוּר אַרְיֵה, זְאֵב יִטְרָף (בראשית מ"ט), בְּכוֹר שׁוֹרוֹ (דברים ל"ג), אַיָּלָה שְׁלֻחָה (בראשית מ"ט), וּמִי שֶׁלֹּא נִכְתַּב בּוֹ, הֲרֵי הַכָּתוּב כְּלָלָן וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם (שם), וְעוֹד כְּתִיב מָה אִמְּךָ לְבִיָּא (יחזקאל י"ט):
(1) כי חיות הנה signifies they are just as skilful as midwives. The Aramaic for מילדות, midwives, is חיתא (hence the term חיות in this verse). Our Rabbis, however, (taking this word in the sense of animals) gave the following explanation (Sotah 11b): they have been compared to the beasts of the field which do not require the help of midwives. And where are they compared to animals? (Genesis 49:9) “Judah is a young lion”; (Genesis 27) “Benjamin is a wolf that leareth”; (Deuteronomy 33:17) “Joseph is the firstling of his ox”; (Genesis 49:21) “Naphtali is a hind sent forth”. As for the ancestors of those tribes about whom such a comparison is not expressly written Scripture implicitly includes them in the several blessings bestowed upon their brothers, (and thus they also are compared, as their brothers, to animals), for Scripture states, (Genesis 49:28) “And he blessed them etc.” (cf. Rashi on these words). Then, again, it is written, (Ezekiel 19:2) “How was thy mother a lioness!” (The prophet is addressing the princes of Israel as the representatives of the people, and by the term “thy mother” means the progenitors of the nation; the chapter proceeds to speak of the mother’s offspring as “whelps”).

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.

(א) ויאמר מלך מצרים למילדות. שרות היו על כל המילדות כי אין ספק כי יותר מחמש מאות מילדות היו אלא אלו שתיהן שרות היו עליהן לתת מס למלך מהשכר וככה ראיתי היום במקומות רבות. והאם והבת היו בדרך קבלה כי נכון הוא

(1) To the midwives. Shifrah and Puah were administrators in charge of all the other midwives, for there were undoubtedly more than five hundred midwives for the entire population. Therefore, it must be that these two were administrators who were responsible for collecting taxes from the midwives’ earnings for Pharaoh; and so have I seen today in many locales. According to the tradition from our Sages they were a mother and daughter, and this is correct.

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.

(א) וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִ֖ישׁ מִבֵּ֣ית לֵוִ֑י וַיִּקַּ֖ח אֶת־בַּת־לֵוִֽי׃ (ב) וַתַּ֥הַר הָאִשָּׁ֖ה וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֹתוֹ֙ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא וַֽתִּצְפְּנֵ֖הוּ שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה יְרָחִֽים׃ (ג) וְלֹא־יָכְלָ֣ה עוֹד֮ הַצְּפִינוֹ֒ וַתִּֽקַּֽח־לוֹ֙ תֵּ֣בַת גֹּ֔מֶא וַתַּחְמְרָ֥ה בַחֵמָ֖ר וּבַזָּ֑פֶת וַתָּ֤שֶׂם בָּהּ֙ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וַתָּ֥שֶׂם בַּסּ֖וּף עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיְאֹֽר׃

(1) A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. (2) The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was good, she hid him for three months. (3) When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.

(ד) וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹקִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹקִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁךְ׃
(4) God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness.

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.

Unfortunately, she had precious little available in her power. So she, like many mothers in dangerous, untenable situations, takes the least awful option available to her.

(ד) וַתֵּתַצַּ֥ב אֲחֹת֖וֹ מֵרָחֹ֑ק לְדֵעָ֕ה מַה־יֵּעָשֶׂ֖ה לֽוֹ׃ (ה) וַתֵּ֤רֶד בַּת־פַּרְעֹה֙ לִרְחֹ֣ץ עַל־הַיְאֹ֔ר וְנַעֲרֹתֶ֥יהָ הֹלְכֹ֖ת עַל־יַ֣ד הַיְאֹ֑ר וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֶת־הַתֵּבָה֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַסּ֔וּף וַתִּשְׁלַ֥ח אֶת־אֲמָתָ֖הּ וַתִּקָּחֶֽהָ (ו) וַתִּפְתַּח֙ וַתִּרְאֵ֣הוּ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וְהִנֵּה־נַ֖עַר בֹּכֶ֑ה וַתַּחְמֹ֣ל עָלָ֔יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר מִיַּלְדֵ֥י הָֽעִבְרִ֖ים זֶֽה׃ (ז) וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֲחֹתוֹ֮ אֶל־בַּת־פַּרְעֹה֒ הַאֵלֵ֗ךְ וְקָרָ֤אתִי לָךְ֙ אִשָּׁ֣ה מֵינֶ֔קֶת מִ֖ן הָעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת וְתֵינִ֥ק לָ֖ךְ אֶת־הַיָּֽלֶד׃ (ח) וַתֹּֽאמֶר־לָ֥הּ בַּת־פַּרְעֹ֖ה לֵ֑כִי וַתֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ הָֽעַלְמָ֔ה וַתִּקְרָ֖א אֶת־אֵ֥ם הַיָּֽלֶד׃ (ט) וַתֹּ֧אמֶר לָ֣הּ בַּת־פַּרְעֹ֗ה הֵילִ֜יכִי אֶת־הַיֶּ֤לֶד הַזֶּה֙ וְהֵינִקִ֣הוּ לִ֔י וַאֲנִ֖י אֶתֵּ֣ן אֶת־שְׂכָרֵ֑ךְ וַתִּקַּ֧ח הָאִשָּׁ֛ה הַיֶּ֖לֶד וַתְּנִיקֵֽהוּ׃
(4) And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. (5) The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. (6) When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” (7) Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” (8) And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. (9) And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.

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.

(א) וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָ֗ד בֶּן־חֵ֤פֶר בֶּן־גִּלְעָד֙ בֶּן־מָכִ֣יר בֶּן־מְנַשֶּׁ֔ה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹ֖ת מְנַשֶּׁ֣ה בֶן־יוֹסֵ֑ף וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ שְׁמ֣וֹת בְּנֹתָ֔יו מַחְלָ֣ה נֹעָ֔ה וְחָגְלָ֥ה וּמִלְכָּ֖ה וְתִרְצָֽה׃ (ב) וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֜דְנָה לִפְנֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֗ה וְלִפְנֵי֙ אֶלְעָזָ֣ר הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלִפְנֵ֥י הַנְּשִׂיאִ֖ם וְכָל־הָעֵדָ֑ה פֶּ֥תַח אֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃ (ג) אָבִינוּ֮ מֵ֣ת בַּמִּדְבָּר֒ וְה֨וּא לֹא־הָיָ֜ה בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעֵדָ֗ה הַנּוֹעָדִ֛ים עַל־יי בַּעֲדַת־קֹ֑רַח כִּֽי־בְחֶטְא֣וֹ מֵ֔ת וּבָנִ֖ים לֹא־הָ֥יוּ לֽוֹ׃ (ד) לָ֣מָּה יִגָּרַ֤ע שֵׁם־אָבִ֙ינוּ֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֔וֹ כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ בֵּ֑ן תְּנָה־לָּ֣נוּ אֲחֻזָּ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֥י אָבִֽינוּ׃ (ה) וַיַּקְרֵ֥ב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־מִשְׁפָּטָ֖ן לִפְנֵ֥י יי׃ (ס) (ו) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יי אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (ז) כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃ (ח) וְאֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֣ישׁ כִּֽי־יָמ֗וּת וּבֵן֙ אֵ֣ין ל֔וֹ וְהַֽעֲבַרְתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לְבִתּֽוֹ׃ (ט) וְאִם־אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ בַּ֑ת וּנְתַתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לְאֶחָיו׃ (י) וְאִם־אֵ֥ין ל֖וֹ אַחִ֑ים וּנְתַתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֖וֹ לַאֲחֵ֥י אָבִֽיו׃ (יא) וְאִם־אֵ֣ין אַחִים֮ לְאָבִיו֒ וּנְתַתֶּ֣ם אֶת־נַחֲלָת֗וֹ לִשְׁאֵר֞וֹ הַקָּרֹ֥ב אֵלָ֛יו מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ וְיָרַ֣שׁ אֹתָ֑הּ וְֽהָ֨יְתָ֜ה לִבְנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לְחֻקַּ֣ת מִשְׁפָּ֔ט כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יי אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃ (ס)
(1) The daughters of Zelophehad, of Manassite family—son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph—came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. (2) They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, (3) “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the LORD, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. (4) Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (5) Moses brought their case before the LORD. (6) And the LORD said to Moses, (7) “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them. (8) “Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter. (9) If he has no daughter, you shall assign his property to his brothers. (10) If he has no brothers, you shall assign his property to his father’s brothers. (11) If his father had no brothers, you shall assign his property to his nearest relative in his own clan, and he shall inherit it.’ This shall be the law of procedure for the Israelites, in accordance with the LORD’s command to Moses.”

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.

דרש רב עוירא בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור נגאלו ישראל ממצרים

§ Rav Avira taught: In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.

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