Kol Isha: The unsung heroines of the Exodus

According to the Talmud, women, too were "involved in the [Pessah] miracle."

seder plate 88 (photo credit: )
seder plate 88
(photo credit: )
I don't remember my bubby reclining or drinking wine at the Pessah Seder. Instead, my great-uncle Jack, propped up with pillows on either side of him like a great (though diminutive) king, mumbled through the Maxwell House Passover Haggada, while my bubby and great-aunt Gladys bustled between the whining children and laden table, with gefilte fish, chicken soup and mandelen. I don't recall them even sitting during the Seder, let alone reclining or drinking wine. Yet women are obligated to drink four cups of wine and recline as well. Though, for the most part, women are exempt from time-bound precepts, the four cups of wine present an important exception because, according to the Talmud, "[women] too were involved in the miracle" (B. Pessahim 108a-b). Similarly the custom to lean, a symbol of freedom, was once reserved for "important women" (ibid.), but now that "all of our women are important" (Tosafot), all women are required to recline. On the phrase - "they too were involved in the miracle" - Rashi cites the famous adage: "By virtue of the righteous women, Israel was redeemed from Egypt" (B. Sota 11b). Women are obligated to drink the four cups of wine at the Seder because they played a pivotal role in the exodus miracle. Which women did the aggada have in mind? It may have been the myriad of women who, against all odds, resisted despair and gave birth to the Israelite nation. Or perhaps it was the midwives who defied Pharaoh's edict, refusing to kill the infants at their birth (Ex. 1:18). In Nahum Sarna's words, they enacted "history's first recorded case of civil disobedience in defense of a moral cause." The most moving scene, however, entails a female conspiracy of three. Pharaoh had decreed that every Hebrew male infant should be thrown into the Nile. Then a Levite woman conceived and gave birth to a son "and saw that he was good" (Exodus 2:2). It is this special way of seeing - with the intent to save - that also marks the gaze of Miriam and Pharaoh's daughter. When she could no longer hide the baby, the mother sent him to the Nile waters in a little ark. His sister, Miriam, stood at a distance, watching, "to find out what would befall him." As Pharaoh's daughter was walking along the Nile with her maidservants, "she saw the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, 'This must be a Hebrew child!'" The mewling infant filled her eyes and heart, and, like the midwives, Pharaoh's daughter was moved to defy her father's decree, in the second significant act of conscientious objection in history. Upon Miriam's suggestion, she hired a Hebrew nursemaid (ostensibly the child's own mother), and two or three years later, she "made him her son, naming him 'Moses,'" which means simply "son of" or "child" in Egyptian. However the text suggests that she gave the name a Hebrew meaning, "for out of the water I drew him (mishitihu)." Out of the water, from among the reeds, swaddled in his ark, she drew him for life, against the decree of death. The midrash suggests that Pharaoh's daughter eventually married Caleb (also called Mered) of the tribe of Judah and was renamed Bithiah, daughter of God: "The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son, so too you are not my daughter and yet I call you my daughter (biti), as it says, 'These were the sons of Bithiah daughter of Pharaoh, whom Mered married' (1 Chronicles 4:18)" (Leviticus Raba 1:3). Just as she adopted a Hebrew infant to become an Egyptian prince, God adopted an Egyptian princess as his own daughter, when she joined the Jewish people. And while Moses had 10 different names, "God only addressed him by the name she called him, as it says, 'God called to him out of the [burning] bush: "Moses! Moses!"' (Ex. 3:4)" (Kala Rabati 3:23). She saw with the gaze of compassion, naming the child after her act of rebellion, "for out of the waters I drew him." God then echoes her call, so that Moses will draw the people out of the Reed Sea, those other waters. This Pessah Seder, I will lean and drink wine, as my bubby and great-aunt Gladys never seemed to do. But I will tell their story, for their story is one of maternal care, of compassion, the story that affirms life and, ultimately, redemption. I will also tell the story of the princess of Egypt, the "important woman" who was willing to risk all, moved by the gaze of compassion. The writer lectures in Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.