Judi's Journal 04-15-2011

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Women in the Passover Story

By Judi Siegal

In a few days, Jews all over the world will be sitting down to a ritual meal called a seder. Complete with symbolic foods and rituals, this special meal will celebrate the Israelites’ freedom from slavery centuries ago. It will also mark the beginning of the Jewish emergence as a nation, one who would ultimately receive a system of laws and statutes that were to guide their lives. At this special time of the year, the story of the Exodus will be told and retold, as its power never ceases to inspire Jews and non-Jews alike. There is but one problem with the story. That is women, who we will see had quite a hand in the story, are not mentioned in the Haggadah, the official guidebook to the seder. Who are these women and what were their roles in the Exodus? Why weren’t they mentioned? What modern rituals do we institute today to fill in the gaps found in the traditional haggadah? These are the questions that Jews of today grapple with.

          To begin with, there are five women associated with the Passover story: Miriam, Yocheved, Shifra, Puah and the no name, Egyptian princess. Yocheved is Moses’ biological mother. According to the Torah, the Pharaoh of Egypt orders all male baby Israelites born to be drowned in the River Nile because the Egyptian ruler fears one of them will try to lead the Israelite slaves to freedom. Yocheved hides the baby Moses for three months but fearing that Pharaoh’s soldiers will find her son, she plans a desperate move: she will place the infant in a basket, send it down the River Nile and hope for the best. She sends in her daughter, Miriam, to watch over the basket and see what happens. One would think that Yocheved would want to follow the progress of her son, but that probably would have been too dangerous. I admire her courage in doing what she did and how centuries later Jewish women of the Holocaust era would do other equally dangerous things to save the lives of their children.

          As the story goes, Miriam follows the progress of the basket until it is discovered by the princess of Egypt who had gone down to the river to bathe. Finding the child, she is moved to pity for she realizes this is an Israelite child by the weave of the blanket that protects him. She decides to save the child and make it her own. At this point, Miriam emerges from her hiding place along the river and offers to find a wet nurse for the child. The princess agrees and Miriam brings Moses to be nursed by his own mother in an ironic twist of fate. Yochaved later brings Moses to the palace to be reared by the princess as soon as the child is weaned.

          As for Shifra and Puah, they too are heroines. While both Yocheved and the princess defied Pharaoh, they too are members of the same club. These courageous women were Israelite midwives. When asked to kill the infant sons, they replied that the Israelite women were quick to give birth and before the midwives could arrive, the children had been born.

          As the Passover story unfolds, all these women seem to fade away, except for Miriam. We have no record of what happens to Moses’ two mothers or to the midwives and can only speculate on their fates. Fortunately, Miriam’s role has been remembered in song, ritual and legend.

          In modern seder ritual, Miriam is immortalized by a cup of spring water placed in her behalf on the seder table. This is symbolic of the miraculous well of Miriam that followed the Israelites during their years of wandering in the desert. She was also the one to lead the women in song as they reached the other side of the Reed Sea. Tradition has her singing and praising the God of deliverance to the accompaniment of tambourines. Today, many sing a song written by the late Debbie Friedman, which tells this story.

          There are also traditions, that it was because of the merit of the Israelite women in general, that the Israelites were freed from slavery. It is told that the Israelite men did not want to have children born into slavery but the women seduced their husbands praying for a time that they would be freed from bondage. It should also be noted that even as slaves, the women encouraged their men to keep their Hebrew names. This is significant because these women even in the worst of times had faith that there would be a better future.

          So why are women not mentioned in the Haggadah? It is believed that the seder is based on the Greek symposium, a meal where learned men would sit down, drink wine and discuss the issues of the day. In the Greek world, women were kept in private places, rather than in the public eye. Of course the writers of the haggadah were men and were following the rules of their day. Others would say that the Exodus is the work of God and not men. (That argument doesn’t really work well since there are references to men all through the haggadah.)

          The more liberal branches of Judaism, such as Reconstructionism, include rituals which make mention of the role of women in the Jewish struggle for liberation. Through song, Miriam’s cup and the addition of an orange on the seder plate, women assume their rightful role as players in the Passover story.

          May the Passover message of freedom resonate all over the world bringing peace and liberation to all men and women. Happy Passover!