|April 18, 2011 / 15 Nisan, 5771
True Grit: The Women Who Generated the Liberation from Egypt
Rela Mintz Geffen
A special edition of The Unraveller for Seder discussion!
It is almost immediately evident to anyone who studies the Haggadah that human agency is deliberately absent from the narrative. As is the case in Exodus, the goal of the editor is to demonstrate, magnify and exalt the omnipotence of God. Many have noted that the name of Moshe doesn’t appear in the text. Others are missing as well, specifically five women who stood up to the edicts and potential wrath of an all-powerful Pharoah and ensured that Moshe would be able to live and function as a leader. These women are (in order of appearance): his mother Yocheved; the midwives Shifra and Puah; his sister Miriam; his foster Mother, the Daughter of Pharoah (named Batya by the Rabbis).
While the desire of Yocheved to save her son is immediately understandable and recognized by all, the less noted bravery of Shifra and Puah is truly heroic. In Exodus 1:15-17 it says: (all translations are new JPS)
The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives; one of whom was named Shifra and and the other, Puah, 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.” The midwives fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.
The Hebrew phrasing “hameyaldot haivriyot” may be read and translated correctly in two ways, as the midwives of the Hebrews or as the Hebrew midwives. If Shifra and Puah were Hebrews their actions, like those of Yocheved are admirable but not entirely unexpected. If they were not Hebrews, their bravery is truly amazing. Either way, unlike much of the Hebrew populace or even Moshe, who tried (unsuccessfully) to get out of being God’s emissary numerous times, Shifra and Puah fear God and disobey Pharoah’s edict seemingly without a qualm. Perhaps their experience of regularly helping in the birth process sensitized them to the miracle of life.
Similarly, Batya, Pharoah’s daughter shows remarkable independence as she decides to take Moshe as her own son and to raise him under the nose of Pharoah in the palace. Because of her, a future leader of the Hebrews would be socialized who did not have a slave mentality, but rather that of a Hebrew/Jewish prince. (okay I couldn’t resist that one)
Miriam too shows great daring, perseverance and fortitude. As it says in Exodus 2:4, “And his sister stationed herself at a distance to learn what would befall him.”Miriam was the sentinel who, seeing the daughter of Pharaoh discover the infant, spoke right up and said (Exodus 2:7-8) “Shall I go and and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharoah’s daughter said to her “Go.” So the girl went and summoned the child’s mother.” How quickly Miriam thinks! Without her quick action Moshe would not have received the benefits of having his biological mother nurture his earliest years.
Later on in the text when she takes the timbrel in her hands and leads the women in song and dance Miriam is given the title of prophet. Miriam’s leadership role is connected to water through-out the story of the Exodus. She watches over Moshe in the water, she leads the women in dancing after crossing the sea, and after her death the text reports a dearth of water for the children of Israel. The prophet Micah writes “For I brought you up out of the house of bondage; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam.”
Adding a Cup of Miriam filled with water to the Seder table is a contemporary minhag which recalls this important connection and reminds us of all of the women who showed true grit during the Exodus. But how shall we integrate this new minhag into the liturgy? Rabbi Avis Miller suggests that at the beginning of the Seder when we recite “Ha’lachma anya” - let all who are hungry come and eat”, we fill the Cup of Miriam and recite the verse from Isaiah 55:1 “ Hoy, Kol tzamey lchu lamayim” “Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water.”
So, this year as you recite the Haggadah, and tell of the greatness of God, take a moment or two to remember the women who were God’s instruments in making the Exodus possible.
This Pesah lesson was written by Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen.
Rela Mintz Geffen is the co-author (with Daniel Elazar) of The Conservative Movement in Judaism (SUNY Press) She is a sociologist of religion who studies the American Jewish community. Currently an Adjunct Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania,she is an alumna of the Teachers Institute of JTS and the daughter of Rabbi Joel S. Geffen z"l, who was Spiritual Advisor to the FJMC for more than four decades.
The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.
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