I remember how excited I was to attend my first women’s seder when I was a teenager. It was a revolutionary concept in the late 1970s: women taking charge of the rituals and adding their modern flare to an ancient text. But what inspired me far more than hearing women lead kiddush over the four cups of wine was discovering the underlying strength of the story’s female characters.
Even before the feminist awakening of the 1970s, much had been written about the critical role that women actors played in propelling the story of the Exodus forward. Less than 10 percent of all the characters named in the Bible are women, but in the Passover narrative, females dominate. Shifra and Puah, the midwives, bravely defy Pharoah’s orders to kill the newborn sons of the Israelites. Yocheved, Moses’s mother, takes the decisive step to hide her child from Egyptian authorities for three months and then devises a plan to send him to safety. Miriam, Moses’s older sister, proves herself a resourceful spy and talented interlocutor as the plot unfolds. Pharaoh’s daughter, known as Batya, ignores her father’s plans to wipe out the Jewish population, rescues a doomed Israelite child and has the chutzpah to raise him in her father’s palace!
But at the women’s Seder we started to read between the lines to understand the unique characteristics that motivated these actions.
Yocheved could only have risked her baby’s life if she had the firm maternal conviction that he would be rescued. Miriam was only able to fulfill her mission because she had the fearlessness and presence of mind that her family’s future depended on her. Batya’s deep compassion for the abandoned baby in the basket prompted her to step outside her comfort zone and act independently of her society’s culture.
Shifra and Puah did more than refuse to follow an order; they started a moral rebellion. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, attributes the idea of “civil disobedience” to them. He contends that the lines in the first chapter of the Book of Exodus about Shifra and Puah are “the first recorded instance of one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to civilization: the idea that there are moral limits to power. There are instructions that should not be obeyed.” By prioritizing justice over the law of the land, Shifra and Puah became moral heroes of history.
Heroism does not come just from actions, but from the attitudes that lead to actions.
As I attended more women’s Seders over the years, I looked intently for more of the underlying threads that women wove into the Jewish tapestry. At one Seder in the mid-1990s, the highlight came when our hosts handed out tambourines and we all got up to dance to “Miriam’s Song” by Debbie Friedman. In the Passover story, Miriam, the clever young girl, later becomes a community leader, raising the spirits of the Children of Israel after they crossed the Red Sea. Encouraging her people to celebrate their liberation despite their fears about what lay ahead is another important action, but what led to it? I was struck by the idea that Miriam had remembered to pack her timbrels in the first place! As she hastily prepared for the desert trek, not knowing where they were going or what obstacles they would face, she knew there would be reasons to rejoice. She was hopeful—an essential quality of a visionary leader—and she had faith.
Moses may be the protagonist of the Children of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom, but his odyssey was dependent on the actions of the women around him. And while no one disputes that Moses was the ultimate, unparalleled prophet of Israel, his identity was clearly shaped by his extraordinary mother, step-mother, sister, and later his wife, Zipporah. Their courage, conviction, conscience, and capacity for caring about others still inspire us.
DEBBIE MELINE IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.