Appreciating the Courage of the People Who are Behind the Scenes
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
This week, we are starting to read the book of Sh’mot, the book of Exodus. From family stories of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs in the book of Bereshit (Genesis), now we begin reading about the people of Israel as a group.
Pharaoh was the first to see them as a people: “And Pharaoh said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us.” (Sh’mot 1:7)
The Torah tells us that Pharaoh was afraid that the people of Israel were increasing in numbers and that they would make a war against them. So, he decided to oppress them with forced labor and increased taxes.
After that, we read about Moses’ story and God’s willingness to liberate the people of Israel. Usually, we talk about Moses’ meetings with Pharaoh and about God’s miracles, but we don’t talk too much about some of the heroes who fostered and were part of the liberation.
Behind the scenes, there were some heroes who, with courage and hope, did great actions to liberate the enslaved people. We usually focus on the main characters and not on the supporting figures, who did great and important jobs as well.
What brave and courageous people do we find in the beginning of the exodus story told in this week’s parashah? What heroes do we have, whose examples we should follow?
As I mentioned before, parashah Sh’mot starts by telling us that Pharaoh saw how the Hebrews had become numerous and reproduced very fast. He ordered the midwives, Shifra and Puah, to kill every male child when they delivered Israelite babies.
The Torah tells us: “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Shmot 1:17) The midwives, with this action, could have lost their own lives. They had the courage to disobey Pharaoh in order to save the babies’ lives. They were really heroines.
Pharaoh then ordered every male Israelite baby to be thrown into the Nile. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, defied Pharaoh by hiding her son and preparing a basket that saved him from death (Sh’mot 2:3). Here we have our third heroine of this story.
After this, Pharaoh’s own daughter discovered the crying of the baby among the reeds of the Nile (Sh’mot 2:5-6). Moved by empathy and humanity, she too defied the king when she rescued the baby. Our fourth heroine.
Miriam, Moses’ sister, then appeared, offering to secure a nursemaid, who just happened to be Moses’ mother (2:7-9). Our fifth heroine!
In the first two chapters of the Book of Sh’mot, we have five women who disobeyed Pharaoh, putting their lives at risk for the sake of others’ lives and for justice!
We may affirm that through these enterprising women who collaborated with each other across ethnic, class, and religious lines, the first steps of the liberation were taken before God had chosen Moses as the leader of the people of Israel.
These five women disobeyed Pharaoh, showing how much they valued the ethical concern for life, empathy for the people who are suffering, and the pursuit of justice and freedom.
The midwives Shifra and Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter—the five heroines of this week’s parashah—had the strength and courage to disobey a death decree for the sake of life. Without a doubt, these courageous women played a key role in the saving and liberation of the Jewish people.
Following this idea, the sages affirm in the Talmud: “If it were not for the righteous women of this generation, we would not have been redeemed from Egypt.” (Talmud Bavli, Masechet Sota 9b)
The sages of the Talmud, hundreds of years ago, when the term “feminism” didn’t even exist, understood that the liberation would not have happened without the enormous effort, dedication, and courage that the women of that time had.
This Parashah teaches us that we should appreciate and recognize the courage and effort of the people who are behind the scenes, doing an important job, even if we don’t see them.
If it were not for the courage of these women, Moses would not have survived and there would have been no beginning of the redemption.
Maybe, after God recognized the courageous actions of these women, of these five heroines, he decided to liberate the people of Israel.
May God grant us the ability to learn from this parashah the enormous courage, assertiveness, solidarity, and compassion that the women of this story showed us.
May the deeds, courage and compassion of these women inspire our lives.