In a little more than three weeks Passover will be here, and sociologists tell us that more Jews will participate in some form of Passover Seder than will participate in any other religious event during the year!
The Seder is the most successful pedagogical tool in Jewish history largely because it stimulates all of our senses: sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell.
In addition to the traditional symbols many will include an orange on their Seder plates.
The most prominent myth behind this custom is that years ago, a man confronted Professor Susannah Heschel and told her,”The idea of women rabbis makes as much sense as an orange on a Seder plate.”
Today it is impossible to think of meaningful non-Orthodox Jewish life without the enormous contributions women rabbis have made since the ordination of Sally Priesand in 1972. Personally, I would prefer to retire the orange and spend serious time at the Seder discussing the vital role women played in the Exodus story.
This conversation will do much more than an orange to teach the vital role women have played in Jewish history and to stimulate them to think of what role they might play in shaping a proud Jewish future.
Instead of an orange I want my daughters and granddaughters to know that without the actions of no fewer than six women heroes, Moses never would have gotten so far as to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” I want every Seder participant to know that without these six women the Exodus could not have taken place, and we would have no Passover to celebrate!
Shiphrah and Puah were humble midwives. Pharaoh ordered them to kill every baby boy that emerged from his mother’s womb. The most powerful man on earth – one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order! The midwives, though, answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh. Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis’ who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews. They were only following orders. Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice.
Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Then she placed him in a wicker basket and floated him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took, but her gamble paid off!
Miriam, Moses’ sister watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam runs to her and suggests the baby’s own mother as its nurse. In so doing she saved her brother’s life.
The heroic role of Pharaoh’s daughter also should not escape our attention. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses. For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name, and she herself received the name Bit-yah, which means “daughter of the Lord.” (Va-yikra Rabbah 1:3; B, Megillah 13A).
The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so (Exodus 4:24-26). The passage really does not fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished. They could have deemed it crucial or inconsequential. The chose to to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son!
The heroism of the women who made Passover possible is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking. An orange does not make their case. Telling their story does.