The story of our people begins with resistance. Resistance against tyranny, resistance against injustice and perhaps most profoundly, resistance against allegations of inferiority.
Sefer Shemot begins by listing the sons of Yaakov, their fruitfulness in the Land of Egypt, and then without skipping a beat jumps to Pharaoh’s paranoid fears engendered by Israel’s uncanny population growth. Initially, Pharaoh’s propaganda seems disjointed. On the one hand, he is concerned that Israel is becoming too great, but then he ends his monologue with the fear that they might leave the land—“ve’ala min ha’aretz.” Rationally, the mass exodus would seem like a solution to his problems, not an additional one. To understand the crux of Pharaoh’s fears, we need to remember that regulating Egypt’s borders was the sole prerogative of the king. He alone controlled who came and who left. That’s why, at the end of Bereishit, for example, we see Yosef asking permission to leave Egypt to bury Yaakov. Pharaoh wasn’t worried about being outnumbered; he was worried about potential insurrection. He didn’t fear the sheer number of Israelites, he feared the power he imagined would be fueled by their population increase.
And so, initially, he attempts to suppress them with compulsory labor and the curtailing of their freedoms. When that fails, he resorts to infanticide. Pharaoh commands the midwives who oversee the births of the Hebrew women to kill any son born, but as for the daughters, they shall live. Ostensibly, from the perspective of Pharaoh, females are at best innocuous, at worst, powerless; either way, they are incapable of insurgency. The Torah, of course, has a different take and conveys it through juxtaposition. In the very next verse, it is the “compliant” midwives who defy Pharaoh’s orders, assist the birth of baby boys, and even manage to dupe him in the process.
But the midwives are just the beginning. The daughter of Levi, introduced in the shadow of Pharaoh’s decree to throw all sons in the river, marries, gives birth, and then does her utmost to save her baby’s life. Another daughter, that baby’s sister, then watches over her brother in the thicket. At that point, a third daughter appears, and the irony could not be more brilliant. Pharaoh’s own daughter saves the baby and ends up raising him in the palace as her own. The very daughters whom Pharaoh wrote off as irrelevant to the course that history takes were the ones who end up determining it all.
Shemot is not just the story of how we left Egypt, it is the story of our emergence as a nation, and it holds within it the core principles we need to know vis-à-vis our place on the world scene. As such, it doesn’t begin with the makkot, the plagues; it begins with a story about a group of people society wrote off as powerless, and then it shows us just how that group of “powerless people” end up destabilizing the throne of evil.
The women of Shemot as seen through the eyes of Pharaoh are the metaphor for Israel, as seen so often through the eyes of the world. As such, the resistance of the females at the outset of our history is a template for what Jewish resistance can and should look like. Jewish resistance entails an utter disregard for contentions of our weakness and a faith in ultimate goodness, even in the bleakest of times. It prioritizes morality and respect for human life over all else, and rather than cowering in the face of wickedness, it finds ingenious ways to contend with it. It requires cooperation among us, and with others who identify with our ideals. And it demands that individuals remain cognizant that choices they make today can leave deep imprints on the future of our people.
“In the merit of the righteous women who were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b). Let us emulate their bravery and their altruism.
Yael Leibowitz teaches at the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning and the Pardes Institute. She is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).