Six Women Made Passover Possible

We cannot really appreciate the meaning and message of Passover without recognizing the importance of these six women!

Passover will soon 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!

From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold. Without Passover we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero. The Book of Exodus, however, makes it clear that the role women play in that event is crucial. 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!” Without these six women the Exodus could not have taken place, and we would have no Passover to celebrate!

Shipphrah and Puah

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

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

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.

Pharaoh’s Daughter

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).

Zipporah

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.

(My book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives discusses the role of these six women in greater detail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard-Hearted Pharaoh

High on my list of Passover FAQs:

a) Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

b) Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and facilitate the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Undoubtedly, Pharaoh’s arteriosclerosis is a conundrum. In the text, traditional Jewish commentators point out early discourses between Moses and Pharaoh that state, “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.” (E.g. Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28). Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text evolves into, “The Eternal One stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This shift, according to the commentators, reflects the view that inertia—the unchecked hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (his stubbornness)—took the matter out of Pharaoh’s hands, and evil took on a life of its own.

In Studies in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz parallels the unchecked acts of evil that Pharaoh committed, to those of Macbeth. At first, Macbeth is reluctant to do wrong. He certainly fears to lay hands on his King, Duncan. With each succeeding murder, though, the voice of his conscience becomes a whisper, and ultimately relinquishes control over Macbeth’s treacherous impulses.

When in Act III, Lady Macbeth, who first encouraged her hesitant husband to kill the King, voices her reservations concerning Macbeth’s reign of terror, Macbeth responds: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” (Act III, Scene 2, line 55). In other words, the evil has taken on a life of its own; Macbeth can no longer control himself.

So it was, with Pharaoh.

Rabbi Akiba (second century C.E.) foreshadowed Shakespeare’s insight in

Macbeth when he described the inclination to do evil this way:

“At first it (the inclination to do evil) is like a spider’s thread and at last it is like a rope of a ship.”

(Genesis Rabbah 22:6).

Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said:

“The evil inclination of a person waxes stronger day by day.

It seeks to kill him.   If God did not help, a person could not overcome it.”

(B. Kiddushin 30 b).

Implicit in this text is the notion that a person must enlist God’s help to repress the inclination to do evil. God will not do it for us unless we consciously make the effort.

In other words, only through diligent effort and appeal to God for help, can humans overcome the inclination to do wrong. When we persist in evil, when we ignore God’s will, evil takes on strength greater than us. Those uncomfortable with such direct references to the Almighty, but who still seek guidance from traditional texts, might choose to substitute, “appeal to the voice of our conscience” for “enlist God’s help.”

In Pirke Avoth (3:19) we find one of Jewish thought’s most enigmatic teachings: “All is foreseen. Yet free will is given.” As the rabbis understood God, the Almighty knows exactly what will happen. At the same time, the rabbis uphold the ability of human beings to make moral choices of their own volition. So, for the Rabbis, the fact that God announces that the Almighty would harden Pharaoh’s heart (first in Exodus 4:21 and again in 7:3) does not mean that God is responsible for Pharaoh’s evil. The point is that Pharaoh was in no way receptive to God’s guidance.

God, then, did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart. God allowed Pharaoh to continue on his chosen course. God allows all of us to do the same. Although most of us, at times, have wished that God would step in and change people, but such action would rob us of the free will that gives life meaning.

Rabbi Stephen L Fuchs

 

Book Excerpt: The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will –between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire
people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay. Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.

Six Women Made Passover Possible

Passover will soon 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!

From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold. Without Passover we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero. The Book of Exodus, however, makes it clear that the role women play in that event is crucial. 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!” 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.

(My book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives discusses the role of these six women in greater detail)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Premise of My Book in Brief

Rabbi Stephen FuchsWHAT’S IN IT FOR ME walks an important line between fundamentalism and fairy tale and fills an important niche in Torah commentary.  Fundamentalist perspectives on Scripture abound and so do commentaries denigrating Scripture as unscientific and unhistorical.

WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME cares nothing about science because the Bible is not a science book.  It cares little about history as well. The premise of the book is that its stories were carefully selected for what they can teach us about living more meaningful lives and becoming better people.

Torah presents to the world a deity unlike any others that people worshipped.  In the pagan world into which Torah emerged gods and goddesses were force that people worshipped because they presumed these deities had power.  The only purpose of worship was to bribe these gods with offerings so that they would not use that power to hurt or to induce the deity to use their power to help those who worshipped them.  Ethics, morals and human interaction were of no concern to these gods.

God in the Torah is entirely different.   Of course we only worship one God and our God is invisible.  But as crucial as these differences are they are NOT the most important.

The most important difference is the agenda of Torah’s God.  From the story of Creation on God’s desire is that human beings – we creatures who are in charge of and responsible for the quality of life on earth – use our power to create a just, caring ad compassionate society.  All of our religious behavior as Jews – Holy Days, festivals, and life cycle celebrations – is designed to inspire us to work toward God’s ultimate goal.

There is no overstating the importance of this difference.  Yes, there are sacrifices in the Bible, but their purpose is to inspire ethical and moral behavior not assuage God’s anger.  Over and over again the prophets particularly those of the eighth pre-Christian century, Amos Hosea Isaiah and Micah, instruct the people of Judah and Israel that sacrificial observance unaccompanied by ethical and moral behavior is an abomination.

How desperately we need that message today!  Our religious observances only have meaning in so far as they inspire us to care for those less fortunate than we are, to seek housing for the homeless and food for the hungry.  In Jewish thought there is no place for an innocent bystander in the face of poverty and injustice. This is the Torah’s timeless message .  That is the message I hope my book will help its readers make their own.