Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
This week’s Torah reading Moses is saved from the decree of death by his mother’s cleverness, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter in full view of his sister and grows up as a prince of Egypt. He is shown to us as a young man who realizes the significance of his true identity as part of an enslaved and suffering people: “Growing up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people” (Ex. 2: 10). He intervenes, demonstrating the character of a true leader.
Actually we watch him intervene three times in this reading: twice in Egypt and once in Midian in order to rescue victims of violence. Following that, we get a glimpse of the incredible experience he had: coming face to face with a burning bush that was not consumed, the place where God issued the call to him to lead his people to freedom. Moses hesitates but in the end accepts his destiny. In these scenes we are shown the childhood and young life of a future hero.
But below the surface of these events is another remarkable message: the heroism of six courageous women without whom there would never have been a Moses!
First is Yocheved, mother of the three people who were to become the great leaders of the Israelites: Miriam, Aaron and Moses himself. It was Yocheved who, at the height of Egyptian persecution, had the courage to have a child, hide him for three months, and then devise a plan to give him a chance of being rescued. We don’t know a lot about her but reading the text, we are left in no doubt about her bravery and resourcefulness. Not by accident did her children all become leaders.
Then there is Miriam, Yocheved’s daughter and Moses’ elder sister. She kept watch over the infant Moses as the ark floated down the river. She approached Pharaoh’s daughter with the suggestion that he be nursed among his own people. The biblical text shows us a young Miriam of unusual fearlessness and presence of mind. Miriam was a young girl full of faith.
Third and fourth were the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who frustrated Pharaoh’s first attempt at genocide. Told to kill the male Israelite children at birth, they “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Ex. 1: 17). Accused of disobedience, they outwitted Pharaoh by replying that the Hebrew women, were vigorous and gave birth before they arrived. They escaped punishment and saved their own lives as well as the lives of many baby boys.
This week’s Torah portion is the first recorded instance of one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to civilization: the principle that there are moral limits to power. There are instructions that should not be obeyed. There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that “I was only obeying orders.” This concept is not a modern invention for Its true origin lay thousands of years earlier in the actions of two women, Shifra and Puah who taught us by their example the priority of conscience over conformity, and the primacy of true just in the face of immoral laws of the land.
The fifth is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. Determined to accompany Moses on his mission to Egypt, despite the fact that she had no reason to risk her life by doing so. In addition, she saved her husband’s life by performing a circumcision on their son (Ex. 4: 24-26). The impression we are left with is of a deeply determined woman who, at a crucial moment, had a better sense than Moses himself of what God required.
Lastly, Pharaoh’s daughter, who had the courage to rescue an Israelite child and bring it up as her own in the very palace where her father was plotting the destruction of the Hebrews. Could we imagine a daughter of Hitler bringing a Jewish child into her home?
The Torah does not give us but in the First Book of Chronicles (4: 18) there is mention of a daughter of Pharaoh, named Bitya, and it was she the sages identified as the woman who saved Moses. The name Bitya (sometimes rendered as Batya) means “the daughter of God”. From this, the sages drew one of their most striking lessons:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son. You are not My daughter, but I shall call you My daughter.”3
So, on the surface, the parsha is about the initiation into leadership of one remarkable man, but just beneath the surface is a counter-narrative of six extraordinary women without whom there would not have been a Moses. They belong to a long tradition of strong women throughout Jewish history, from Deborah, Hannah, Ruth and Esther in the Bible to more modern figures like Anne Frank, Hannah Senesh and Golda Meir.
How then, if women emerge so powerfully as leaders, were they excluded in Jewish law from certain leadership roles? If we look carefully we will see that women were historically excluded from two areas only. One was the priesthood which went to Aaron and his sons. The other was kingship which went to David and his sons. These were two roles built on the principle of dynastic succession.
However, women were not excluded from spiritual leadership and influence. There were prophetesses, not just prophets. The sages enumerated seven of them. There were great women Torah scholars from the Mishnaic period and there still are today.
Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, Zipporah and Batya were leaders not because of any official position they held (in the case of Batya she was a leader despite her official title as a princess of Egypt). They were leaders because they had courage and conscience. They refused to be intimidated by power or defeated by circumstance. They were the real heroes of the exodus. Their courage stands to this day as a source of inspiration.
In Tune with Torah this week = true leadership is not a matter of title, but of character. It is the ability to influence those around us in positive ways, inspiring and leading them to seek a closer relationship with God. In that effort, everyone of us, man, woman and child, can be leaders. How are you doing?