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Passover Lessons from the Women of the Exodus Generation

To paraphrase the four questions section of our Passover Haggadah, how is this year’s Passover different than all other years?

This year, as we enter into the homes of family, friends, or soon to be acquaintances, we sit down to our seders during a time of domestic and global crisis. During challenging times such as these, many members of our Jewish communities are looking for hope and motivation. I believe the often overlooked stories of Yocheved, Miriam, and the women of the Exodus generation may serve as an inspiration to our communities. Through examining these women’s actions within Egypt and in the desert, we may find the courage to move forward with dignity and strength from any obstacle in our way.

If we look into the first book of Exodus, we will see that the Jewish women of this generation were a miraculous bunch powered by an endless supply of chutzpah and bravery. Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, Moses’ older sister, were the founding members of this group. Both Yocheved and Miriam refused to submit to Pharaoh’s decree calling for all Hebrew slaves to throw their newborn baby sons into the Nile. Yocheved, helped by Miriam’s watchful eye, defies Pharaoh and his genocidal proclamations by successfully guiding Moses to safety. During this make or break moment, the women "network" with a most unlikely connection, the daughter of Pharaoh and princess of Egypt, called Batya by our rabbis. As it reads in our Torah, Pharaoh’s daughter becomes Moses’ adoptive mother during his early childhood. Without Yocheved, Miriam, and Batya’s efforts, it is doubtful that Moses, the eventual redeemer of the Jewish people, would have survived.Another renegade faction of the Exodus generation was Shiprah and Puah, the midwives who appear in the early parts of Exodus. These daring women enabled other Hebrew women to save their babies and protected the Hebrew women from Pharaoh’s retribution. We witness the women’s crafty manipulation of Pharaoh during their conversation with an irate Pharaoh, who is baffled by the high survival rates of the Jewish babies. The midwives put their lives on the line by taking the blame for the new births in the Hebrew community, "And the midwives said to Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are skilled as midwives; when the midwife has not yet come to them, they have already given birth" (EX 1:19). Interestingly, the rabbis of our Jewish tradition speculate that Shiprah and Puah were really Yocheved and Miriam.

Even after the Jewish nation was liberated from Pharaoh’s regime, the women of the Exodus generation carried themselves with honor and dignity in the face of unspeakable chaos. As Rashi and Midrash Tanhuma describe, the women of the tribe refused to participate within the construction of the Golden Calf. According to our sages, they didn’t cease to the peer pressure of their zealous husbands, brothers, and fathers and would not give up their earrings and jewelry for the calf’s construction.

It is clear that the women of the Exodus generation were a critical part of the strength and spirit of the Jewish people during times of great change and transition. Their actions at the beginning and conclusion of the Exodus narrative bookmark the Jewish people’s evolution from slavery to freedom. Fueled by a feisty spirit of "girl power" at its purest, Yocheved and Miriam worked with one another to find a solution to their problem and sought out unconventional resources (Batya) to set their plans into action. The midwives, who might or not have been Yocheved and Miriam, sacrificed their lives in order to enable the Hebrew population to keep their families intact and growing. And finally, the women of the Exodus generation who lived to see freedom in the desert didn’t lower themselves morally and ethically when faced with the forces of negativity and doubt during the creation of the Golden Calf. According to our sages, these daring women removed themselves from an unhealthy and idolatrous situation when it was necessary. This year, let us draw from the example of our foremothers when we address the challenges facing our modern Jewish communities. May we recognize that we cannot always wait for others to step forward to commence tikkun olam. Taking the women of the Exodus generation’s actions into mind, let’s utilize our Passover celebrations to become agents and organizers of change within our domestic and global Jewish communities. May we be emboldened to complete haknassat orchim (welcoming guests) for a family or friend without place for seder, to donate tzedakah (charity) or canned Kosher for Passover goods to a needy food pantry so that everyone can experience Passover with dignity, and increase our completion of chesed (kindness) for those in need.

May this be a Zissen Pesah to you and your loved ones filled with warmth, laughter, and community.

Hayley Siegel is the rabbinic intern at 92YTribeca, where she runs all of the Jewish Life programming, including Shabbat dinners, holidays, and Jewish learning. To learn more about 92YTribeca and 92YTribeca Jewish Life, click here.  

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