Over its long history, the Jewish people have undergone countless crises and upheavals. One of them was the period of bondage in Egypt. Pharaoh – the brutal King of Egypt – harassed the Children of Israel with hard labor, trying tirelessly to break them physically and mentally. Survival in Egypt seemed almost impossible. And, yet during the era of enslavement, the Torah says, " And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly… and the land was filled with them " (Exodus 1:7). A baby boom! How was it possible that during such a harrowing time so many children were born? The secret of that redemption is that women initiated, through resilience and agency, an amazing scenario!
Pharaoh prohibited the Jewish slaves from returning to their homes, so that no Jewish children would be born. In response to Pharaoh's decree, their wives launched subversive actions against the tyrannical regime. In bondage, they boldly chose freedom. Instead of waiting for their husbands to come home like broken fragments, they went to the fields to meet their husbands, nourished them with fish and wine, and breathed new life into the men. The midrash said that "Each woman held the mirror so she could see herself with her husband in the mirror and they said to their husbands "I'm more beautiful than you". They brought their husbands to lust, became pregnant and gave birth..."
The Israelite women went out into the fields, from a place of bondage and darkness, and they illuminated the world, making it a place of freedom! The women’s insistence, their persuasive actions, convinced their husbands to fulfill the commandment of “go forth and multiply,” enabling fresh, new hope for creating a new generation. It is unparalleled greatness to create romance and Eros in a situation when their humanity was almost lost. Its origins are rooted deep within female personal freedom, and it is a profound expression of resilience.
The bronze mirrors constitute a space of liberation from the narrow, egoistic self toward new spaces of freedom, power and resilience. Those inspiring women carried out active resistance and subversive endeavors to Pharaoh's regime, out of freedom of thought and action. The mirror is transformed from something material into something spiritual, in an act of love that transcends the spirit. They used a tool of seduction to build personal and national strength – a tool for building a nation and for the work of God. There is a transformational process of transcendence beyond the physical state, to the creation of a world, of new life. What was material became spiritual, and that is why God commanded Moses to turn the bronze mirrors into a basin at the entrance to the tabernacle, where the priests washed their hands and feet. The priests derived their sanctity from the material and elevated it.
In moments of darkness, female resourcefulness and agency take on unimaginable depth and power. There is a thread of grace that connects Egyptian women and Jewish women throughout the ages. This special female DNA, which is a mix of loving-kindness, resourcefulness, and courage, continued to inspire women during the Inquisition, the pogroms, during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust when Jewish women married and started families in the DP camps – they named their children after lost loved ones as an act of defiance against Hitler's genocidal intentions. It also beats in the hearts of contemporary Jewish women. As shuls are closed, let's turn our homes into our sanctuaries and pray fervently to Hashem to save our loved ones and help us to speedily end this terrible plague. Together with the Almighty, it will help us confront the corona crisis.
The whole world is appalled and helpless with the outbreak and spread of this epidemic. No one knows where it is leading us ... But even in these difficult days, despite the anxiety and fear of the unknown, Jewish women across the world continued to prepare for Passover, to throw out the physical and spiritual leaven and prepare the heart to “welcome the matzoth.” Women, even in these moments of darkness and despair, were preparing the house for the Festival of Freedom, planning what the Seder table would look like, the special holiday atmosphere, the napkins, flowers, even the dress that every woman planned to wear to project an atmosphere of joy for herself and her family – even if for older people they know that they may have to do this in isolation, or without their grandchildren. We, the women, can be the heroes of our generation, who elevate the material, and turn despair into joy. Women who choose at this time not to be enslaved by grief and fear – are celebrating real freedom and liberty.
The decision to choose life – joyfully, hopefully and even at this time when we have to self-isolate from our extended families – derives from profound inner freedom. It expresses resilience and heroism, and it requires inner work, and work on midot, especially the act of liberation.
Let’s decide, despite the current situation, to choose to celebrate Passover and beyond and make it a joyous time. Our hope and spiritual resistance to the forces of sadness that are only natural at a time of despair and fear. Together, let’s create freedom, resilience, hope, and joy and show the world and ourselves that Am Yisrael Chai!
The writer holds the UNESCO Chair in Education for Human Values, Tolerance and Peace and heads The Sal Van Gelder Center for Holocaust Research & Instruction at Bar-Ilan University's Churgin School of Education. This article was originally published in the International Council of Jewish Women newsletter.