The Power of Women Parshat Shemot

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiIn decreeing the destruction of the Israelites in Egypt, why does Pharaoh distinguish between the genders? Apparently afraid to keep the Israelite men alive lest they wage a rebellion against him, Pharaoh is confident that the Israelite women will not pose a threat, as they will presumably marry Egyptian men and assimilate into Egyptian society.

This strategy underscores Pharaoh’s ignorance — or denial — of the pivotal role women play in the development of a nation, and stands in stark contrast to the perspective of our Sages, who in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni declare that it was “in the merit of the righteous Israelite women that the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt.”

The Talmud teaches, “I always call my wife ‘my home,” since the real bulwark of the home is the woman of the house. As the Jewish nation emerged from a family, and family units are the bedrock of every society, it is clearly the women who are of supreme importance.

Pharaoh was blind to this. Apparently, he had no tradition of matriarchs such as Sarah and Rebecca, who directed the destiny of a national mission. For him, women were the weaker gender who were there to be used and taken advantage of. This is why Pharaoh attempts to utilize the Hebrew midwives to do his dirty work of actually murdering the male babies on the birth stools. To his surprise, the women rebelled: “And the midwives feared the Lord, so they did not do what the king of Egypt told them to do; they kept the male babies alive.”

Pharaoh begins to learn his lesson when Moses asks for a three-day journey in the desert; Pharaoh wants to know who will go. Moses insists: “Our youth and our old people will go, our sons and our daughters will go — our entire households will go, our women as well as our men.” A wiser Pharaoh will now only allow the men to leave; he now understands that he has most to fear from the women!

And so it is no wonder that Passover, the festival of our freedom, is celebrated in the Torah with “a lamb for each house,” with the women included in the paschal sacrificial meal by name no less than the men. In our time, we find this idea expressed in the observances of the Passover Seder (the drinking of the four cups of wine, the eating of matza, and the telling of the story of the exodus, etc.), which are binding on women no less than men.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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