Pioneers in Civil Disobedience: The Women of Passover

By Natasha Mayer

 

Last month, we celebrated the Jews being freed from Haman’s threats of genocide thanks to Esther’s honesty and willingness to speak up. We’ve only recently begun to free Vashti from her reputation as a foil to Esther, who saved the Jews. When Vashti refused her husband King Achaverosh’s demand to parade nude in front of his officers, he banished her. Vashti lived in a time where women were required by law to submit to their husbands, and her disobedience represents her rebelliousness and strength. Feminist discourse on Esther varies between a symbol of female submission and a victim of abuse who worked within the limitations of her position as a woman and still saved the Jewish people. Now, many believe that both women can be heroes of the Purim story.

 

This month, we observe another holiday driven by women, Passover. Traditionally, Moses’s achievements have been celebrated exclusively, and the women who made it possible for Moses to free the Jews from slavery in Egypt have been relegated to footnotes to his story. I want to elevate those women to their deserved hero status in the Passover story.

The first women we meet are the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah. Pharaoh has ordered the midwives to kill all infant Jewish boys by throwing them in the Nile. At great risk to their own safety and their lives, Shifra and Puah save Moses and help his mother, Yocheved, to hide him until she can’t any longer.

 

Then, we have Yocheved, who places Moses in a basket in the river, again risking her own life to save her son in the face of injustice. Miriam, Moses’s sister, keeps watch as he drifts down the river, and when Batya takes Moses in, Miriam offers to find a wet nurse for Moses, and brings Yocheved, his mother, to continue watching over him.

 

In the texts, Bayta doesn’t have a name and is referred to only as Bat Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s daughter, but the rabbis believed her role was too important to remain unnamed, and recorded her name as Batya, meaning daughter of God. By saving Moses, Batya demonstrates civil disobedience. Knowing he was a Hebrew baby, Batya risks the wrath of her father and listens to her morals over her family and upbringing. By adopting Moses, a child of a different faith and background, Batya exemplifies welcoming the stranger.

 

Without the civil disobedience by Shifra and Puah who refused to drown him, Moses never would have lived past birth. Without the adept planning of his mother, Yocheved, and sister, Miriam, Moses would have been killed in infancy. Without the generous spirit and defiance of Batya, Moses would never have had the upbringing and position that allowed him to free the Jews from slavery. Now it’s time to give these women the credit they have earned.

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