In the Merit of the Righteous Women of the Exodus, the Israelites were Redeemed
Dr. Leila Bronner, PhD
The story of the exodus from Egypt portrays many women as playing crucial roles in saving their people from extinction. The portion of Shemot in particular describes five women given courage by G-d to confront the Pharaoh and save Moses. They prepared the great leader to free the Jewish people from slavery, and thus they generated our freedom.
The rabbinic retelling of the Exodus embellishes the stories of these women. The Gemara tells us that it was “b’zechut nashim tzidkaniyot” – through the merit of the righteous women – that Israel came to be redeemed from Egypt (Sotah 11b). The sages offer various examples and elaborations of the bravery and redemptive actions credited to the women of the days of Exodus from Egypt (yetziat mitzrayim). This amoraic source located the women’s merit in their fulfilling their function as women – feeding and nurturing – to ensure the continuity of life.
The midwives are the first mentioned in the Torah getting credit for securing the continuity of the Israelites by refusing to obey Pharaoh’s command to put to death the male children of the Hebrews. In the Torah it is not clear whether Shifrah and Puah (Shemot 1:15), the midwives, were Hebrew or Egyptian. The midrashic sources give two opinions. According to one midrash, the midwives were Hebrew women, and it even identifies them; Shifrah was Yocheved, and Puah was Miriam. Trying to discover the meaning of their names, the amoraim relate those names to their behavior in caring for the children.
Another source claims they were Egyptians. In any case, they defied Pharaoh’s command to kill every male child. Not only that, they went further and supplied the babies with water and food. When Pharaoh demanded to know how they had dared to defy his edict, the midwives asserted that the Hebrew women had no need for their services, saying that Hebrew women were vigorous and sturdy, unlike pampered Egyptian women, and they would give birth before the midwives arrived (Shemot 1:19). This behavior on the part of the midwives shows great courage.
The bravery of the women of that age included an Egyptian woman, the daughter of Pharaoh. Midrash, in explicating Scripture (Shemot 2:5), records that in rescuing Moses from the bulrushes she dared to challenge her father, the king and ruler, who had absolute power over her, in order to save a male Hebrew child. Pharaoh’s daughter is traditionally identified with the Bityah mentioned in Divrei HaYamim (Part I, 4:18. The midrash comments that her name indicates she was a daughter of G-d (bat-Yah): “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Bityah the daughter of Pharaoh, ‘Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you, too, though you are not My daughter, yet I will call My daughter.’”
Other instances of women of the Exodus period playing redemptive roles include Yocheved, the mother of Moses, who hid her newborn child from Pharaoh (Shemot 2:3), and Miriam, his sister, who watched from afar and waited until the daughter of Pharaoh rescued him from the river (Shemot 2:4). Tziporah, the wife of Moses, also performed a redemptive act by circumcising their son and thereby preventing her husband’s death (Shemot 4:24-27).
Moses was surrounded by these six women and owed his very life to them. No other biblical age records the names and deeds of so many masterful and righteous women, all of whom provide ample material to discuss during the seder and upon which to reflect during the year, when teaching Sefer Shemot. With their actions, the women displayed not only conventional female fortitude but also unprecedented courage on par with (or even exceeding) that shown by men challenging the tyrant Pharaoh, ruler of Egypt.