Righteous Women

We tend to judge Jewish righteousness in terms of tradition, ritual, observance; though it is certainly true, it's not entire truth.

311_jewish women learning (photo credit: Lydia Polimeni)
311_jewish women learning
(photo credit: Lydia Polimeni)
One of the well-known statements of the Midrash about the exodus of Israel from Egyptian bondage is that the Jewish people, our ancestors, were redeemed because of the merit of the righteous Jewish women of the time.
We tend to judge Jewish righteousness purely in terms of tradition, ritual and observance; and though that is certainly true, it is not the entire truth. Jewish women, then and now, have been a source of everyday inspiration and hope for men who, in their hard-hearted realism, are given to despair and pessimism.
Amram, Moses’s father, refused to live with his wife Jochebed any longer after the decree of Pharaoh to cast all Jewish male infants into the Nile. He despaired of any Jewish future, though he was, according to the Talmud, the most righteous person of his generation, completely free of sin. His daughter Miriam convinced him otherwise; and from his reconciliation with Jochebed, Moses was born.
The Midrash tells us that the bronze plating for the altar that stood in the Tabernacle came from the mirrors that the women of Israel used to entice their husbands to create a future generation of Jews when all seemed apparently lost and redemption from Egyptian bondage looked to be impossible. These actions earned the women the title of being righteous. In the eyes of heaven, righteousness apparently comes in many different forms. Bearing children in a world inimical to Jewish survival is perhaps the highest form of righteousness for such a time, representing a declaration of faith and hope for the future well-being of our people and the world in general. Children are also a declaration that one does not live only for oneself. The entire idea of selflessness and responsibility for one another is based on children and family. Parents care for and raise children, and children care for and help their parents later in life.
The statement of Rabbi Akiva that the great rule of the Torah is “to love others as you love yourself” begins with family and children.
And it has always been the righteous women of Israel, our wives, mothers and daughters, that have epitomized this highest of all standards of human behavior. In a cold and dark world that is often cruel, the women of Israel in Egypt – the great midwives Shiphrah and Puah – stood for humane behavior and godly virtues. They helped Jewish children live and survive. It is therefore no wonder that Jewish tradition places the credit for our freedom from Egyptian bondage at their feet.
The Torah links its imperative “to choose life” with the other imperative of “reviving, saving and helping children live.”
Whereas in the animal world the offspring are abandoned by the parents after a period of time, in human culture a child always remains one’s child because that child represents all of one’s hopes and accomplishments in this world and in immortality as well.
Our society has made great strides in improving the status of women. There still is a long way to go, but there is no comparison in terms of education, professions, mobility and opportunity to what was available even a few decades ago. This is true in the religious society of the Jewish people as well. Our great-grandmothers in Eastern Europe may have been in the main illiterate, but our daughters and granddaughters are biblical scholars, physicians, professors and educators. What a boon this has been to Jewish life and its richness of thought and knowledge.
Again, the righteousness of our women is not measured only in their ritual piety, necessary as that is for Jewish continuity, but also in their vast influence and spirit that have so enriched our current society. From the women of Israel in Egypt to Deborah, Hulda, Esther, Dona Gracia Beatrice Mendez, Sarah Schnirer and our own mothers, wives and daughters, the spirit of Israel has been nurtured by the optimism and sacrifice of Jewish women. It is they who provide much merit for our ultimate redemption. So the story of the Exodus repeats itself in this fashion in our days as well. And so may it be.