My first encounter with Torah was in the sunroom of a dilapidated schoolhouse near Bondi Beach, in Sydney, Australia. Seven girls were chosen from all the yeshiva primary grades as being worthy of learning Rashi, the greatest biblical commentator. The boys we left behind to flick gum balls and throw paper airplanes. They couldn't hold a candle to us.
Our teacher had a long red beard and a gentle smile. He stood before us, set his Humash on his briefcase, and chanted the first verse in the Book of Exodus in heavy Ashkenazi Hebrew: "V'ayleh shmois bnai yisroel,"â€¦ "And these are the names of the Children of Israel..." We repeated after him, mimicking his singsong voice and rocking back and forth on our chairs.
Leading us with his chant, our teacher took us on a journey. Joseph died, with all his brothers, and a new pharaoh arose, who feared the Hebrews and sought to subjugate them. Once 70 free people, we were forced into slavery. "Vayemoreru es hayehem,"... "and they embittered their livesâ€¦," our teacher sang to us. This was my favorite verse; the oppression was distilled into a few thrilling alliterations. Drawn into the drama, I was there, too, a little Australian girl suffering with her forebears in Egypt.
It took us weeks, maybe months, to learn the first few verses of Exodus, and mirroring our classroom, there was hardly a man in the story. In the entire Bible there is no place with such a dense cluster of women, or such an absence of men, as is found in the dark preceding the redemption.
Under the spell of a lunatic paranoia, the king of Egypt approaches the Hebrew midwives to demand they kill all the boys as they arrive on the birthing stones. But Shiphrah and Puah fear God, not the king and they let the boys live. And when the king calls the midwives to task for failing to obey him, these fearless women come up with a ruse so plausible that he lets them alone. God is pleased with them, and builds them houses. Rashi reinterprets the reward: One midwife becomes the mother of the priesthood, the other the mother of kingship. Ironic rewards indeed, for these are dynasties open only to men.
In the midst of the genocide, a man from the House of Levi takes a wife from that tribe. And the woman, woe to her, bears a son. When she can no longer can hide him, she prepares a haven to protect him when he is abandoned to the water. The Bible, otherwise so spare, describes in great detail on the making of the ark for the baby. It is clearly an act of immense love and careful calculation by his mother. What was in her mind as she laid him on the river? What hope did she have had that he would survive?
But her plan is provident, because Pharaoh's daughter is out bathing with her maids. Noticing the ark, she sends a maid to fetch it. Inside she discovers a crying child, and surmises that he is of the Hebrews. Lurking in the reeds, waiting for this impossible chance, the baby's sister appears and offers to find a wet nurse for him. Pharaoh's daughter is pleased with the offer - did she guess the game? And so the baby is cared for, at Pharaoh's expense, for the first years of his life.
And then the child returns to the woman who found him and saved him, and she names him Moses. And Moses grows up.
By the time Moses was named, we little girls in Sydney had been initiated into the cadence of Torah. Much faster we moved through the next passages, until we came to the verses that hint at three of the four sons who appear at the Seder. We debated among ourselves whether we were tam, simple children, or she'eno yodea lishol, those who didn't know how to ask. Our teacher laughed his gentle laugh and said "No, no, you girls are hachamim, wise ones, who ask the right questions, and even know the answers..." He didn't call us hachamot, wise women in the feminine form, he said hachamim.
There was no yeshiva for boys in Sydney. There was only this, an old house with some children of survivors - leftover Jews - who remembered that once there was an exodus and thought that maybe they should teach their children about it. We seven girls were entrusted with the story and its interpretation; to our teacher we were hachamim. How we glowed when he told us!
In the merit of righteous women we were redeemed from Egypt, the Talmud tells us. The midrash elaborates how the women accomplished their redemptive goals in erotic detail, but I could never understand why the midrash was necessary. Between Joseph, viceroy to the king of Egypt, and Moses, prince of Egypt, redeemer of Israel, there is not one named male. There are, however, six women, including two named, and all accomplish acts of breathtaking bravery, of hope and of rebellious righteousness.
And the men? Megalomaniac Pharaoh, absentee Levite husband and babe in an ark.
They couldn't hold a candle to us.
The writer is partner in the Washington D.C. and New York offices of Crowell & Moring and Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University. She is writing a book on fertility in the Jewish world. firstname.lastname@example.org