How Women Lead The Fight Against Pharaoh

The women in the Torah know something about how to respond to a repressive Pharaoh.

In the time of our slavery, the Egyptian midwives Shifra and Puah are ordered to drown all the Israelite baby boys, but they refuse to do something morally repugnant, and they ignore Pharaoh’s command. Not only do they refuse to be a part of this immoral order, but they actively work against it in order to save and protect others. They could have given up their jobs and turned over the responsibility to people more willing to follow Pharaoh’s orders, but instead they continue to act as midwives, helping the Israelite women and then lying to Pharaoh about why the population continues to grow. Their action saves lives. These are women who do not follow immoral orders; they are at the center of one of the first acts of civil disobedience.  

Pharaoh’s daughter also refuses to follow her father’s commands. When she finds Moses floating in the Nile she knows he is a Hebrew baby; she is aware of her father’s order, and knows the only reason why a baby would be floating in a basket in the river. And yet, she picks him up. She brings him home and even allows his own mother to act as his wet nurse. She knows exactly what she is doing, countermanding her father, but she does what she can to save a life. No act is too small — in saving just one person, Pharaoh’s daughter saved an entire people.

Perhaps the most difficult act in times of fear is keeping hope alive; in this we have the example of Miriam and her mother Yoheved. There is a midrash which teaches that in response to Pharaoh’s cruel order, the Israelite men all divorce their wives in order not to produce any children, so that none of them would be in danger of being drowned in the Nile — but Miriam knows better. She tells her father that his decree is even more severe than Pharaoh’s; she tells him that he is condemning both males and females; Pharaoh’s harsh decree might not be completely realized, but by ceasing to have any children at all the Israelite men are guaranteeing that there is no future. Miriam is right. The people do not realize that redemption is on the way — Moses has not been born yet — but Miriam knows that you cannot have a future without hope. Her mother Yoheved also has faith; she hides her newborn son until she can no longer keep him a secret and then places him into a basket on the Nile. She makes it watertight to protect her son the best she can, because she has hope that he will be rescued. Miriam and Yoheved teach us how important it is to continue to live, to love, to raise children and to have faith and hope in the future. At a time when it seems as if there was no hope, these women do not accept that this is the way of the world; they act from their faith that things can get better as long as we don’t give up.

These women, both Egyptian and Israelite, working separately but together, teach us how we can bring about change in even the most challenging of times. These women teach us how to stand up and do the right thing, how to help in whatever way we can, and how to have hope for the future.


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