“Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharoah and you shall free my people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” (Exodus 3:10)
Parashat Sh’mot opens the book of Exodus (which also is called Sh’mot in Hebrew) with the Israelite’s descent into slavery and misery. It also punctures the myth of the “Great Man” theory of history (in which the actions of remarkable individuals make things happen). While Sh’mot introduces Moses, certainly one of the great men of Jewish history, the action of countless nameless women actually set things in motion.
When Pharoah orders Shifra and Puah, the midwives, to kill any newborn Israelite boy, they disobey. When Pharoah asks why, they reply, “…The Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, they are chayot, animals. Before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth.” (Ex. 1:19) The Tsene Rene (~1590s; a Yiddish-language anthology of rabbinic interpretations of the weekly Torah portion, written for women) explains chayot also can mean life givers. Shifra and Puah are not making excuses; they are describing a massive act of civil disobedience, as each Hebrew woman manages her own children’s births (sextuplets in each case, by the way). Things are happening, not because of the actions of a “Great Man,” but because of the actions of many anonymous women.
After this burst of estrogen, though, women are mostly missing from the text of Exodus (compared to Genesis). Aviva Zornberg (1944-; contemporary scholar and author living in Jerusalem) compares this to rabbinic commentaries on Exodus, which portray women repeatedly as THE exemplars of faith and love of the land of Israel. Over and over, women repair what men tear down. Moses emerges as a great man, but the rabbis know it’s the women who drive history.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom