Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shemot Exodus 1:1-6:1
Efrat, Israel - And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with; each individual and his house came” (Exodus 1:1)
The book of Exodus opens with what is a throwback to that which we already know from the last portions of the book of Genesis: the names of Jacob’s children and the seventy Israelite souls- the Jewish households- who came to Egypt. Why the repetition? The great commentator Rashi attempts to explain that “even though Jacob’s progeny were counted by name previously, the names are here repeated to show us how beloved they were…” (Rashi ad loc) However, these first few verses of the book of Exodus are actually a prelude to the enslavement in Egypt, the tragedy of this first Jewish exile. I understand a loving recount when times are joyous but I find such mention superfluous when we are facing suffering and tragedy.
Secondly Pharaoh made a striking distinction between males and females when he ordered Jewish destruction: “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 the Israelite men alive, lest they wage a rebellion against him; he seems to be fairly certain that the women will marry Egyptian men and assimilate into Egyptian society. However, logic dictates a totally opposite plan. Fathers often love and leave without having had any influence upon their progeny; indeed many individuals don’t even know who their biological fathers are! Offspring are far more deeply attached to the mother in whose womb they developed and from whose milk they derive nourishment. Genocide might have been much easier for Pharaoh had he killed off the women and allowed the men to continue to live.
I would argue that although our Bible understands the critical importance of women- we have already seen how Abraham is the first Jew because he is the first individual who is introduced together with his wife who has her own name and identity- Pharaoh is totally oblivious to the pivotal role women 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 “individual and his house”: “When Israel descended to Egypt, Jacob stood up and said, ‘these Egyptians are steeped in debauchery’ he rose up and immediately married all of 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 the house is the woman of the house. Since the Jewish nation emerged from a family and family units are the bedrocks of every society, it is clearly the women who are of extreme importance.
Pharaoh was blind to this. Apparently he had no tradition of matriarchs like Sarah and Rebecca who directed the destiny of a national mission. For him women were the weaker sex who were there to be used and taken advantage of. Hence Pharaoh attempts to utilize the Hebrew midwives as his “kapos” to do his dirty work of actually murdering the male babies on their birth stools. To his surprise, the women rebelled: “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)
It goes much further than that. The Midrash identifies the Hebrew midwives as having been Yocheved and Miryam, mother and sister of Moses and Aaron. The Midrash goes on to teach us that their husband and father Amram was the head of the Israelite Court, and when he heard Pharaoh’s decree to destroy all male babies, he ruled that Israelite couples refrain from bearing 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 and 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 from Egyptian bondage.
Perhaps the importance of women protectors of the household and guardians of the future of Israel 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 Yocheved- not named? You will remember from the book of Genesis that it was Levi together with his brother Shimon who saved the honor of the family of Jacob by killing off the residents of Shekhem, a gentile people who stood silently by while their leader raped and held captive Dina, daughter of Jacob. When Jacob criticizes them on tactical grounds, they reply, “Can we allow them to make a harlot of our sister? “ With these words chapter 34 of the book of Genesis ends; Levi and Shimon have the last word.
Moreover, we know from Jacob and his family that it is the wife who gave names to the children. Even more than Amram and Yocheved, true credit must go to the mother of Amram and the mother of Yocheved. Each of these women gave birth to children in the midst of black bleak days of Jewish oppression. Despite the slavery and carnage round about one mother gives her son the name Amram which means exalted nation; the other mother gives her daughter the name Yocheved which means “glory to God”. These two women were seemingly oblivious to the low estate to which Judaism had fallen in Egypt; their sites were held high, gazing upon the stars of the heavens and covenant between the pieces which guaranteed Israel a glorious future. These two proud grandmothers from the tribe of Levi merited grandchildren like Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
Pharaoh begins to learn his lesson when Moses asks for a three day journey in the desert, Pharaoh wants to know who will go. Moses insists, “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) A wiser Pharaoh will only allow the men to leave; he now understands that he has most to fear from the women. And so Judaism establishes Passover, the festival of our freedom, as being celebrated by “a lamb for each house”, with the women included in the Pascal sacrificial meal by name no less than the men. And so the women celebrate together with the men- the four cups, the matzoh and the hagaddah- the Passover seder of freedom.