As my family celebrates the holiday of Passover, I reflect on important females in the story. These heroines display courage and compassion at a time when it was desperately needed.
Two midwives in Egypt, Shifra and Puah, demonstrate bravery and kindness by saving Jewish baby boys from death. Fearing that the Jews are growing too numerous, the evil king Pharaoh demands that every Jewish newborn boy drowns in the Nile River. Shifrah and Puah revere God and decide to save as many male babies as possible. Many Torah scholars believe that Shifrah and Puah are not Jewish midwives—rather, they are “midwives for the Jews”—in which case their heroic and righteous acts betray their own ruler. When Pharaoh questions the midwives about how Jewish baby boys survive his decree, Shifrah and Puah respond brilliantly that Jewish women are lively and don’t require the services of midwives. Thus, this is how many Jewish baby boys escape death.
Batya, Yocheved and Miriam are also examples of powerful, resourceful women heroines. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, when bathing in the Nile River, sees a floating basket and discovers a baby boy, Moses, inside. She immediately surmises that this boy is likely the son of a Jewish family. The Torah describes that when she sees and hears the child cry, she feels compassion for this innocent baby. Batya, well aware of her father’s morbid decree, protects Moses and raises him as her own child. Batya’s bravery and defiance saves Moses’ life and enables him to become the freer of Bnei Yisrael. Miriam, who is baby Moses’ older sister, hid and watched as Batya discovered the floating basket. Miriam offers to bring baby Moses to a Hebrew woman to nurse and take care of him. Not only is this what Batya needs, but Miriam ultimately negotiates the perfect deal by protecting her younger brother from death and finding a way for their mother, Yocheved, to actually raise Moses until he is old enough to join Batya in her royal house.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Avira explains in a midrash that “thanks to the righteous women, Israel was rescued from Egypt.” Without these women, there would not have been hope during slavery. When Pharaoh rules that Jewish boys are to be killed, the men give up and see no point in having any more children. Jewish women, on the other hand, proclaim courageously that their next baby may be a daughter and the daughter would not have to die, so they convince men to procreate for the future. Even more, the women find ways to protect and rescue Jewish baby boys. Women are the saviors of Jewish traditions and when Pharaoh oppressed the Jewish people, women worked hard to sustain Jewish families.
These remarkable women are rarely mentioned at Seders, yet they are our hidden heroines. As we celebrate Passover we must honor and remember the powerful heroic acts of women in Jewish history.
Sarah Phillips is a freshman at The Spence School in Manhattan.Nike x Fragment Women