“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” — Sue Monk Kidd, author
During a Passover seder, Jews tell the story of Exodus to remind us of our time in bondage and when we lived as strangers in a strange land. The story is filled with emotion and excitement.
In the retelling, we tend to focus on certain parts — the burning bush, the plagues, the chariots racing after the freed Hebrew slaves, the parting of the sea.
In our rush to get to these movie ready aspects of the story, we often neglect the profound start of the tale — a start dominated by five females who set the stage for the story to continue.
In the opening chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh realizes that the children of Israel, the Hebrew slaves, are more numerous than the Egyptians and he schemes to do something about this. He summons two Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, and commands them to kill all the Hebrew boys who they help to deliver.
But the midwives feared God and did not do as they were commanded.
Even though they are referred to as Hebrew midwives, we do not know if Shifra and Puah were themselves Hebrew. Indeed it is hard to believe that Pharaoh would think Hebrew women would murder their own people’s children.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “We do not know to which people Shifra and Puah belong because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race.”
They are two ordinary women who for the sake of humanity dared to defy Pharaoh’s immoral order. This type of audacity was unheard of. They performed the first recorded act of civil disobedience, and were rewarded for it.
“God was good to the midwives … and He made them households.” (Exodus 1:20-21)
As committed as ever, even though foiled by the midwives, Pharaoh next commands all baby boys be thrown into the Nile.
During this time, the Hebrew couple, Yocheved and Amram, have a baby boy. Yocheved is able to conceal his existence for three months, but as this becomes harder to do and fearing his certain death if discovered, Yocheved takes the bold step to cast her baby onto the Nile in a basket. She hopes that someone will see him, rescue him, and raise him as their own.
Yocheved’s desperate attempt to save her child would be mirrored in the 20th century when a number of despairing European Jewish parents sent their children away, to live with other families or in other countries, in the hope they would survive the Holocaust bearing down on the continent.
Yocheved’s selfless bravery was rewarded in the most unexpected way. The baby’s older sister, Miriam, followed the basket along the Nile. What happened next was nothing short of remarkable.
Bathing in the Nile, along with her maids, the Pharaoh’s daughter, known in some texts as Bitya, sees the basket. She sends someone to fetch it. Upon opening the basket she sees a crying baby boy and feels pity. Quickly she realizes this baby must be a Hebrew child, for given her father’s decree, who else would abandon a baby.
Surrounded by her maids, Bitya disobeys her father’s command and determines to not just save the baby, but to raise him as her own. Her compassion and courage cannot be overstated. She was risking everything for this baby.
She was the Pharaoh’s daughter, surrounded by potential gossips who now had information that could destroy her. She does not flinch in her resolve.
Now Miriam, who had observed what had happened, boldly steps forward to address the princess. She offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child. Imagine this young Hebrew girl daring to speak to this royal woman.
Once again we see bravery driven by compassion and love.
Miriam takes the baby back to Yocheved where he is raised. But Bitya does not forget him, and when the child has matured, she brings him back to the palace, adopts him as her son, and names him Moses “because I drew him from the water.” (Exodus 2:10)
The story continues from there.
Today, in a world filled with divisiveness, us versus them, and the dehumanizing of groups of people as animals or others, we can learn much from the women of Exodus.
Women from vastly different backgrounds, displaying moral courage, coming together in compassion and humanity, who saved a child and changed the course of history.
May they inspire us.
• Patricia Turner Custard is a member of Congregation Sukkat Shalom. “Living Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.