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Parashat Shemot: The Leaders & Heroes of Judaism

Who are the leaders and heroes that our tradition gives us?


We have seen countless times how our heroes are beings of flesh and blood, whose superpowers lie above all in their sensitivity towards others and dedication to our tradition and the Torah. That special sensitivity that not only connects with the Lord in a different or more intense way than the rest of the mortals—or with some task that He entrusts or wants to be done.


The Book of Exodus, Shmot, delights us with an almost unparalleled story of heroism. A story of stories that creates one of the bases most recognized by children and adults. And, contrary to what many may think, this story does not have Moshe as its hero.


In my opinion, Moshe is one of the important ones, of course. The story, though, is not about him, but about six heroines, six brave women without whom Moshe would not have existed.


First, there is Yocheved, Amram’s wife and mother of the three people who would later become great leaders of the Israelites: Miryam, Aharon and Moshe himself. It was Yocheved who, at the height of the Egyptian persecution, had the courage to bear a son, hide him for three months and then come up with a plan to give him a chance of rescue. We know very little about Yocheved. The Torah does not display her name in her first appearance. But, as the narrative continues, it leaves no doubt about her bravery and her resources. It is no coincidence that all three of her sons were leaders.


The second was Miryam, the daughter of Yocheved and Moshe’s older sister. She was the one who watched the child as he floated down the river in the small ark, and it was she who approached Pharaoh’s daughter to suggest that he be raised with her people. The biblical text describes the young Miryam endowed with an unusually intrepid personality and with a strong character and contagious spirit that managed to positively influence the entire people. The rabbinical tradition goes further. In a powerful Midrash we read how, upon hearing the decree that all newborn males must be drowned in the river, Amram will determine the Israelites to divorce their wives so that no more children will be born. It had some logic. Would it be right to bring children into the world if there was a fifty percent chance that they would be killed at birth? But his young daughter Miryam, according to tradition, argued with him and convinced him to change his mind. “Your decree,” she said, “is worse than Pharaoh’s. His affects only male children. Yours punishes everyone. His deprives children of this world, yours also deprives them of the World to Come.” Amram reconsidered and, as a result, Moshe was born. The implication is clear: Miryam had more faith than her father.


The third and fourth are the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who frustrated Pharaoh’s first genocidal attempt. Ordered to kill all Israelite males at birth, they, “fearing God, did not do as the King of Egypt surely said, but let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17) When they were summoned and accused of disobedience, they avoided punishment with a witty story: “Hebrew women,” they said, “are very vigorous and give birth before we can arrive.” With that trick they saved many lives.


What is significant about this story is that it is the first instance of one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to civilization: the concept that there are moral limits to power. There are orders that should not be obeyed. There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused with the idea that “I was only obeying orders.” A concept that was tried to be argued after the Holocaust in the Nuremberg tribunals. It’s true origin, however, was thousands of years before in the actions of two women, Shifrah and Puah. Due to their almost unnoticed courage, they earned a place among the moral heroines of History, teaching us that conscience must prevail over conformism, the law of justice over the law of the land.


The fifth is Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife. Despite being the daughter of a Midianite priest, she was determined to accompany Moshe on his mission to Egypt, even though she had no reason to risk her life on such an odyssey. In a deeply enigmatic passage, we see that it was she who saved Moshe’s life by circumcising their son (Exodus 4:24-26). The impression she conveys to us is of a character with a monumental decision-making capacity who, at a crucial moment, had more presence than Moshe himself at God’s request.


Finally, Pharaoh’s daughter. She had the courage to rescue the Israelite child and raise him as her own in the same palace where her father plotted the destruction of the Hebrew people. There is something both heroic and gentle about this barely outlined character, she being none other than the woman who gave Moshe his name.


Who was she? The Torah does not mention her name. However, the first book of Chronicles (4:18) refers to one of Pharaoh’s daughters, named Bityah, and the Sages identify her as Moshe’s savior. The name Bityah (sometimes called Batyah) means “the daughter of God” and, from there, the Sages derived one of their most remarkable lessons:


The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to her: “Moshe was not your son, but you called him your son. You are not My daughter, but I will call you My daughter.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3)


They added that she was one of the few people (tradition cites nine) who were so virtuous that they entered paradise while alive.


So, superficially, Parashat Shemot deals with the initiation into leadership of a prominent figure, Moshe. However, under that surface we find the counter-narrative of six extraordinary women without whom this main character in history would not have existed. They belong to a long tradition of strong women in Jewish history, from Devorah, Channah, Ruth and Esther in the Bible to more modern religious women like Nechama Leibowitz and secularists Anne Frank, Jana Senesh and Golda Meir.


If women emerge so strongly as leaders, how come they were excluded by Jewish law from certain leadership roles? If we analyze it carefully, we will see that the exclusion took place in two specific sectors. One was the “crown of the priesthood” for Aharon and his sons. The other was the “crown of the kingdom” intended for David and his sons. These two roles were built on the basis of dynastic succession. But from the third crown—the “crown of the Torah”—women were not excluded. There are Prophetesses, not only Prophets; the Sages numbered seven (Talmud Babli, Megillah 14a). There have always been great women Torah scholars, from Mishnaic times (Bruriah, Ima Shalom) to the present day.


There are characters who occupy positions of authority, prime ministers, presidents, CEOs, who may not be leaders at all. They may have the power to make people do what they want; nevertheless, they don’t have followers. They do not generate admiration. They do not inspire desire for emulation.


At the same time, there may be leaders who do not have any official position and yet are required by their council as role models. They have no power, but wield great influence. The Prophets of Israel fall into this category, as often were the gedolei Israel, the Sages of each generation. Both Rashi and Rambam had no official positions (some scholars claim that Rambam was the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, but many deny this, although his descendants were).


When leadership depends on personal qualities and not title or position, there is no difference between men and women. Yocheved, Miryam, Shifrah, Puah, Tzipporah and Batyah were leaders, not because of the position they occupied (in the case of Batyah, she was a leader despite her official title of princess of Egypt). They were leaders because they had courage and conscience. They refused to be intimidated by power or defeated by circumstance. They were the true heroines of the Exodus. Their courage is still a source of inspiration in our time.


The passing of time and the evolution (or sometimes involution) of society meant that the role of women was discussed, reviled or claimed and even enthroned, depending on the reactions of the different religious movements that regulated each place.


It is good, even when we do not have this type of negative differentiation between us, to recognize that in other places very close to us this discrimination exists—albeit the places in our history, our tradition and our Torah are well earned.


Rabbi Gustavo Geier

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