This year marks the 100th anniversary of the twentieth amendment, which gave women in the United States the right to vote. The suffragettes had to work long and hard in order to gain this right. They spent countless hours organizing, meeting, protesting, and petitioning in the years leading up to the amendment’s passage. To me, this is analogous to the Israelites fighting for their freedom in the book of Exodus. After hundreds of years of slavery, crying out to G-d, and ten plagues, the Israelites finally had their freedom.
As Pesach approaches, I am thinking about the suffragettes, and I am wondering: where are the women in the Pesach narrative? Allow me to introduce you to some important characters in the story: Shifra and Puah, two midwives; Yocheved, Moses’ mother; Miriam, Moses’ sister; Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter; and Tziporah, Moses’ Midianite wife. Without these women, the Exodus from Egypt could not have been accomplished.
Much like the suffragettes used civil disobedience to achieve their goal of gaining the right to vote, Shifra and Puah, the two midwives mentioned in Exodus, used civil disobedience in order to save Israelite babies. Shifra and Puah were summoned by Pharaoh to kill all first-born Israelite sons. They refused, making up a story that Israelite women were so quick to give birth that they would not reach them in time to take the sons. Without their efforts, many more Israelites would have died, depriving them of future generations.
Moses’ relatives, his mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam, also played an important part of the Israelites’ narrative. Yocheved went to great lengths to save her son, who would later become G-d’s surrogate in redeeming the Israelites and freeing them from slavery. Yocheved put Moses in a basket and sent him down river, hoping, praying, and having faith that he would be saved by an Egyptian. Miriam kept watch as Moses floated down the river in order to keep her brother safe. We learn that Miriam will go on to have an even greater role in the story of the Israelites’ redemption, leading the people in song and dance as they crossed the Sea of Reeds and miraculously providing water for them in the desert from her well.
Pharaoh’s daughter was not even named in the Torah, but she is considered so important to the our story that our midrash names her Batya, meaning the daughter of G-d. Batya is aware of her father’s decree to kill Israelite babies, yet, in another act of civil disobedience, she fetches Moses from the water and raises him as her own. It is noteworthy that Batya is able to reach beyond herself to raise a child from outside her own community. Just like the suffragettes fighting for their right to vote, Batya saving and raising Moses was an act of great bravery and faith, and we can look to her as an example of how we can behave.
Finally, the Exodus could not have happened without Moses’ wife Tziporah, a Midianite princess whom Moses met after fleeing to the desert who was a stalwart for Moses throughout the ordeal. The most notable encounter with Tziporah occurred when she and Moses were on their way back to Egypt. Moses was accosted by the Angel of Death for not having circumcised his son. Thinking on her feet, Tziporah grabbed a sharp object and circumcised their son, thereby saving Moses’ life as well as ensuring the Jewish future of their lineage.
As we celebrate Pesach this year, on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, may we remember the women who helped the Israelites escape from slavery and become a free people.
Cantor Sara Kheel