This week’s Torah portion, or parshah, is Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1). This parshah sets the scene for the liberation of the Israelites from slavery both by introducing main characters and elaborating on just how difficult life was for the Isrealites under Pharoah’s rule. The parshah contains many noteworthy aspects: the death of Joseph and the multiplication of the Isrealites in Egypt; the increasing wrath of the Egptians; the birth and adoption of Moses; Moses’ encounter with the Divine in the form of a burning, yet unconsumed, bush; the revelation of the divine name, G-d’s plan for Moses’ role in the liberation of the Israelites from slavery; Moses’ attempts to get out of his assigned role; and Moses’ first confrontation with Pharoah.
In addition, there are many women, who are integral to the salvation of the Israelites, in this parshah. For the most part, Jewish tradition has acknowledged their part when it comes to discussions of this parshah, especially Shifra and Puah. Yet, their role is often overshadowed by Moses’ varied miracles, the mighty power of the divine, the revelation of the Torah, the wanderings in the desert, and so on. However, the Israelites’ liberation from slavery would have looked quite different without women.
In the parshah, women’s behavior fails along two lines. First, women are often portrayed in stereotypically feminine and female roles, like motherhood, care, concern, raising children and the like. Second, there are also a number of activities that women do that transgress traditionally ascribed gender roles by undermining those in power. In this blog post, the women will be examined one by one in the light of these two groups: stereotypically feminine actions and transgressive behaviors.
The first women we encounter in Shemot are Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah (1:15-20). It is unclear if these women are Isrealite or Eygptian, but what is clear is how they figured in the Pharaoh’s plan to eradicate the Isrealites. Pharaoh instructed the midwives to kill all Hebrew boys, but let the girls live. The women did not obey Pharaoh. In their transgressive actions, Shifra and Puah are credited with helping the Isrealite population grow and strengthen (2:20).
The next woman we come across is Moses’ mother, Jochebed, who gives birth to Moses (2:2) and cares for him until he is three months old. Then, fearing for his life as the Egyptians were commanded to kill all Israelite boys (1:22), she places him in a basket in the river in an attempt to save his life. Jochebed also clearly disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders; she hid the boy until he was too old to successfully hide anymore. His sister, Miriam, watches over him while he floats in the river (2:4).
Pharaoh’s daughter finds baby Moses, crying in his basket in the river (2:5-6). She picks him up and, in defiance of her father’s orders, knowingly rescues an Israelite boy. Miriam helps arrange it so that (presumably) Moses’ own mother serves as his wet nurse (2:7-9). Pharaoh’s daughter eventually adopts him and names him Moses. He is raised aware of his Israelite heritage (2:11).
Moses, during his flight from Egypt, leads us to the next women that we come across in the parshah. The seven daughters of the Midian priest, Reuel, are attempting to give water to their father’s sheep and getting harassed at the well in the process (2:16-17). Moses defends the women’s right to use the well (2:17). Clearly, they regularly encounter problems in their transgressive profession as shepherds as Reuel is surprised they have come back from their duties so early. Reuel gives Moses one of the seven daughters, Zipporah, to marry as a thank-you for his help at the well.
While the daughters as shepherds as a whole don’t play a large role in the salvation of Israel, one of them, Zipporah, does. While Zipporah births their son, Gershom (2:22), that is not her defining role in Moses’ life. She saves him from G-d’s wrath. The events happened as follows. Moses tries to complete the work G-d has set for him to do even though he has not circumcised his son. G-d is not happy that Moses has denied the mark of the covenant to his son and attempts to kill him. Zipporah defiantly takes tradition into her own hands by circumcising their son, Gershom. The divine’s wrath against Moses is appeased and Moses’ life spared thanks to Zipporah’s actions.
Finally, women figure predominantly when the Israelites are instructed as to how they will flee Egypt. Specifically, the women are given the special task of plundering Egypt’s riches by asking their Egyptian women neighbors for their jewelry and clothing and then taking those treasures with them as they flee (3:22). It is worthy to note the good relationships these Israelite women have with their Eypgtian neighbors. Without that, they would never have been loaned the riches with which they later flee. Yet, why they are even asked to steal seems questionable.
In summary, as mentioned earlier, women are integral to the Israelites’ salvation in both cliched and transgressive ways. Women in this parshah behave in stereotypically feminine or female ways when they care for children, marry, give birth, and maintain good relationships with their neighbors. They also abandon such stereotypical behavior. For example, they are shepherds, they are midwives who disregard the powerful, they “borrow” their neighbors possessions in order to eventually rob them of their riches, and they circumcise. More specifically, without his mother and Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses wouldn’t have survived infancy. Without Zipporah, Moses would have been killed by G-d. Without Shifra and Puah, the Pharaoh’s genocidal plans may have come to fruition.
One could say that women’s trangressive behavior was key to our liberation from Egyptian slavery. When we discuss how women should behave nowadays, this parshah should come to mind. The women of this parshah teach us that we can further liberation by transgressing boundaries of acceptable behavior and disobeying the powerful. This begs the question: in what ways do we misbehave and disobey to further modern day liberation movements?
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.