Shemot: The Power of Women
“But the midwives feared G-d, and did not as the King of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive”
“And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark made of reeds, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child in it; and she laid it in the rushes by the river’s brink. And his sister stood far away, to see what would be done to him.”
May we all be blessed with joy, health, prosperity, love, and peace for all in our community, and throughout the world as the non-Jewish world celebrates their Xmas. As we end this secular year, we also begin a new book in the Torah, the book of Shemot (“Names”), often referred to as the Book of Exodus. This book will detail the birth of Moses and the beginning of the journey out of Egypt and towards the Promised Land of Israel. But in the beginning of this book, in this week’s Parshat Ha’Shavuah (the Hebrew term meaning “Portion of the Week”), we learn about one of the most important values in our tradition: honoring women.
Judaism is all too often perceived as being patriarchal, especially within observant communities. An outsider can look at the mechitzah (curtain that separates men from women in Orthodox communities) and view it as a subjugation of women. While men have all sorts of commandments incumbent upon them, women are not responsible for the same. The examples are vast of the seemingly misogynistic qualities in our tradition.
But the truth about Judaism is very different than this perception, and we need to remember how giving honor to women is so integral to our beliefs, practices, and teachings. This week’s portion is a strong and important reminder of how we need to respect and treasure women in our tradition.
The Matriarchs of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah are all spoken about with respect in Genesis. But it is within this week’s portion that we see how our entire survival and exodus from Egypt was because of women (a teaching we are to repeat at each Passover Seder).
We all know the beginning of the story. A new Pharaoh arises in Egypt who knew not of Joseph, and who gets worried that the Hebrews will become so numerous and powerful that they will lead a coup and take over Egypt. His fear was so great that he commanded the Hebrew midwives of Puah and Shiphrah to kill all the Hebrew sons. (While Rashi believes that these are other names for Miriam and Yocheved, the sister and mother of Moses; Midrash Tadshe believes that these two women were proselytes and had their own identities.) These holy women refuse to do this, and make excuses to Pharaoh. It is because of these women that Moses survives the birthing process, as well as the other Hebrew males of his time.
The demonstration of the strength of women is continued immediately as we learn about the courage of Moses’ mother, Yocheved and his sister Miriam. Her baby, Moses, was only three months old when his mother put him in a basket and set him off down the river, while Miriam hid and watched to see what would happen to her brother. When Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and had compassion for it, Miriam stepped out and offered to find a Hebrew mother to nurse the baby for Pharaoh’s daughter… and as a result, Yocheved was allowed to continue nursing her son. The courage of Miriam, the strength and faith of Yocheved, and the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter combined to allow Moses to survive; and ultimately lead our people into freedom.
Not because of men, but because of the women are we blessed to survive!
That respect and understanding of women continues in our traditional practices today. Out of the 613 commandments, women are specifically commanded to observe three of them: welcoming the Shabbat through candle lighting; providing for the Challah for Shabbat; and the laws surrounding the mikvah. Why only these? Because Judaism accepts the inherent holiness of women, and to quote Rabbi Steve Robbins, “Men need 610 commandments to keep them in line, where women only need three”.
Most clearly, we see the importance of the sacredness of women when we pray the Mi Sheberach, the prayer for healing. Out of all our prayers in a service, this prayer is prayed most fervently…especially when it is a prayer for the healing of a family member or dear friend. Most of the time in our liturgy and tradition, we refer to someone by their name and their father’s name (i.e. Yosef ben Yaakov); but for this most powerful prayer we refer to the person by their mother’s name (i.e. Yosef ben Rachel). The Holy Zohar teaches that all the gates of heaven are open to the tears of a mother; and our tradition recognizes that it is through the prayers, practices, and actions of women that healing and survival occurs.
This week’s portion is a reminder for us to treasure the women in our lives: our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and all women in the world. As a Rabbi, I can vouch that I am able to do my job better because of the support, input, and strength of Allison. As much as through the Rabbi or lay leaders, our community is strengthened and perpetuated by the wonderful women of the Sisters of Simcha…who work so hard to make every event at the synagogue filled with wisdom, food and joy. We need to make sure to say thank you and give the proper k’vod (honor) to all the women in our community, and in our lives.
A great Hasidic Rebbe was once asked what should be done to prepare fully for the Passover Seder. His response was that most importantly, the women in the kitchen should be honored and thanked for all they do.
As we begin this new book of the Torah; make a special effort to thank the women in your life. It is not only a practice that helps society, but it is a very “traditional” Jewish practice.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
December 23, 2021
19th of Tevet, 5782