Sh’mot: Six Women and Moses
By David Hazony
In a series of crucial moments in the Torah, the deepest instincts of salvation come to the fore, and powerful, unthinking truths prove to be the path not only to righteousness but to redemption. These are moments that often appear to contradict ideas of universal right and wrong; in them, the affirmation of self obliterates fairness and equanimity, love trumps law, and saving your child or your future is the only right w
orth knowing. They involve the intervention of women.
For a certain kind of feminist, these episodes only enhance ancient stereotypes about women’s roles and are to be deplored. But the statement being made by the Torah is much the opposite: very often, women bring something to the table that men do not or cannot, something for which the masculine soul is somehow inadequate, yet which is utterly irreplaceable in fulfilling the divine promise.
In brief: Eve, who provokes the “sin” of eating the forbidden fruit, is also the author of our knowledge of good and evil: the quality that makes us human, that brings us just shy of godliness.
Abraham’s wife Sarah, who banishes her handmaiden Hagar and her son Ishmael over Abraham’s objections, ensures the place of her beloved Isaac in the chain of God’s truth. Isaac’s wife Rebecca is willing to deceive her blind husband so that Jacob rather than his brutish twin brother Esau will get Isaac’s final blessings and with them the mantle of divine transmission. Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel steals her father Laban’s statuettes, using craftiness to ensure that love prevails and choosing fealty to God over her parents’ idolatry.
Later in the Bible, we find another powerful string of women—from Deborah the judge, to Yael who kills the evil Sisera, to Rahab the prostitute who assists in Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, to Queen Esther and Ruth the Moabite.
Yes, there are also bad ones in the mix (Jezebel and Delilah and Queen Ataliah), but they are vastly outnumbered by their heroic sisters.
All of these stories form a pattern, but they exist in isolation from each other. Nowhere do you have so coordinated an effort by so many women to save the entire Israelite project as in the story of Moses that plays out in this week’s reading. Moses, we discover, owes his life to no fewer than six different women.
The first five conspire to save Moses as a newborn baby. First, the chief Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Pua, risk their own lives in order to defy Pharaoh’s order that every newborn male Israelite be thrown into the Nile. Then there is Moses’ mother Jochebed, who fashions a basket lined with pitch and floats the infant down the river. Moses’ sister Miriam stands watch. Next, Pharaoh’s daughter retrieves the baby from the river, and after identifying him as a Hebrew violates her father’ s edict by taking him in.
Seeing this, Miriam approaches her and arranges for Jochebed to become Moses’ nurse, making it possible for the mother to involve herself directly in the raising of her son.
Thanks to these five women, Moses emerges as a new Joseph, embracing both the deepest teachings of his Hebrew mother and the highest valences of Egyptian royal life—a combination crucial to his later ability to lead his people to salvation.
The sixth woman appears a few chapters later, after Moses has escaped Egypt (where the authorities are after him for killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave). This is Tzipora, daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro, whom Moses marries. After receiving his mission from God, Moses starts back to Egypt with Tzipora and their two sons.
God, we are told, “sought to kill” Moses at an inn, but he is saved by Tzipora’s quick-witted circumcision of their son.
The story is crazily laconic, but suffice it to say that at this crucial moment preceding his salvation of the Jews, Moses is tested to w
ithin an inch of his life and needs Tzipora to rescue him.
Each of these biblical stories has its own local nuances and symbolism. What is striking is the picture seen as a whole, a picture of the entirety of Israel’s redemption hanging on the intervening efforts of women. If, in this week’s case, Moses may be viewed as the Sabbath of the Israelite soul, the six women are its Six Days of Creation, builders of a human universe unlike any that has ever come before. Redemption may sometimes require the courage and dedication to abstract principle that in the Bible’s rendering seem mainly to be male traits. Yet there is clearly a female brand of courage as well, one that draws on urgent and instinctive motivations every bit as true and right and faithful as anything etched in stone by man or God.
David Hazony is the author of The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life, recently published by Scribner.