Parashat Shemot: Women control the future

Exodus opens with a throwback to the last portions of Genesis: the names of Jacob's children and the 70 Israelite souls - the Jewish households - who came to Egypt. (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Exodus opens with a throwback to the last portions of Genesis: the names of Jacob's children and the 70 Israelite souls - the Jewish households - who came to Egypt. Why the repetition? Rashi attempts to explain that "even though Jacob's progeny were counted by name previously, the names are repeated here to show us how beloved they were…" (Rashi ad loc). However, these first few verses of Exodus are a prelude to the enslavement in Egypt - the first Jewish exile. Now, I can understand a loving recount when times are joyous, but find such mention puzzling when the nation is facing suffering and tragedy. Second, Pharaoh later made a striking distinction between males and females: "And Pharaoh commanded his entire nation saying, 'Every male baby born must be thrown into the Nile, and every female baby shall be allowed to live'" (Exodus 1:22). Pharaoh was apparently afraid to keep Israelite males alive, lest they lead a rebellion against him; he seems fairly certain that the women will marry Egyptian men and assimilate into Egyptian society. I would argue that although our Bible understands the critical importance of women, Pharaoh is totally oblivious to the pivotal role they play in the development of a nation. The Midrash on the first verse of Exodus (that we thought superfluous) provides an original meaning to the words "each individual and his house came [to Egypt]": "When Israel descended to Egypt, Jacob stood up and said, 'these Egyptians are steeped in debauchery'; he immediately married all his sons to women." The Midrash is intensifying an oft-quoted statement in the Talmud, "I always call my wife my house," since the real bulwark of a home is the woman. Since the Jewish nation emerged from a family, and family units are the bedrock of every society, women are clearly of supreme importance. Pharaoh was blind to this; he apparently had no tradition of matriarchs like Sarah and Rebekah, women who directed a national mission. For him, women were merely the weaker sex, there to be used and exploited. Hence Pharaoh attempts to co-opt the Hebrew midwives to do the dirty work of murdering male babies. To his surprise, the women rebel: "And the midwives feared the Lord, so they did not do what the king of Egypt told them to do; they kept the male babies alive" (Exodus 1:17). The Midrash identifies these pious women as Jochebed and Miriam - mother and sister of Moses. The Midrash goes on to teach us that their husband and father, Amram, was an influential judge who, when he heard Pharaoh's decree, ruled that Israelite couples refrain from having children. After all, why should men impregnate their wives only to have their baby sons killed? Miriam chided her father: "Pharaoh was better than you are, my father; he only made a decree against male babies, but you are making a decree against female babies as well." Amram was convinced by his daughters' words, and the result was the birth of Moses, savior of Israel. Perhaps the importance of women as protectors of the household and guardians of the future is hinted at in the "anonymous" verse: "And a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi" (Exodus 2:1). Why are the two individuals - Amram and Jochebed - not named? You will remember from Genesis that Levi was the quintessentially proud Jew. When Dinah is raped and held captive by Shechem, Levi and his brother Simeon killed off the entire city for having stood by while its leader committed such a despicable act. This Levite pride continues into the succeeding generations. We know from Jacob and his family that it is the wife who names children. Amram and Jochebed parented three remarkable children, but the true credit for Moses must go to the mothers of Amram and Jochebed. Each of these Levite women gave birth during black days of oppression. Despite the slavery and carnage round about, one names her son Amram, which means "exalted nation"; the other gives her daughter the name Jochebed, which means "glory to God." These two women were seemingly oblivious to the low status of Jews in Egypt; their gaze was set upon the stars, and the Covenant Between the Pieces which guaranteed Israel a glorious future. These two proud grandmothers merited grandchildren like Moses, Aaron and Miriam. We see that Pharaoh begins to learn his lesson when Moses asks for a three-day furlough in the desert and Pharaoh wants to know who will go. Moses insists that "our youth and our old people will go, our sons and our daughters will go" - our entire households will go, our women as well as our men (Exodus 10:8). But a wiser Pharaoh now understands that he can only allow the men to leave. And so Judaism establishes Passover, the festival of our freedom, with "a lamb for each house," and with women included by name in the sacrificial meal no less than men. And so the book of Exodus opens by telling us that the sons of Jacob were all married early on in the Egyptian experience - hinting that it was due to their wives that they not only survived as Hebrews but prevailed as Israelites. Shabbat Shalom. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.