The world feels apocalyptic right now and throbbing under the surface is the intriguing message of Chazal that it was in the merit of righteous women that we were saved in the past and it is in the merit of righteous women that we will be saved in the future. Despite the heartwarming deluge of seminars, classes, series and summits linking women to geula, one might be excused—especially if one is a man—for wondering why specifically righteous women?
The answer may be in understanding that all of us have both a male and female aspect. The original first human being was created androgynous—and all of the Jewish people are cast as feminine towards G-d. Perhaps it is specifically the feminine aspect of all of us — the part of human beings that has been historically disparaged– that needs to be cultivated at this time.
This comes to the fore particularly when we think about redemption because there are two aspects of redemption and all of us need to understand and relate to them both.
The male aspect of redemption—the more dramatic, sensational and impressive—was to take the people out of Egypt. The female aspect—quieter, infinitely slower and almost anti-climactic—was to take Egypt out of the people.
These two types of redemption require completely different skill sets. The female skill set will accomplish nothing for the first goal, while the male set is completely useless for the second goal.
Taking the Jews out of Egypt involved might, power, drama and theatrics. It required G-d’s intervention and His manipulating the laws of Nature. The clashing and banging as a huge empire smashed to the ground– towering egos tumbling off royal thrones, mighty armies helplessly bobbing in a roiling sea, horses and chariot, swirling into a vortex of quicksand–is still echoing through the ages.
But taking Egypt out of the Jews is another kind of redemption. It is a redeeming of the heart, and hearts cannot be commandeered. Hearts, like plants, can only grow and develop, evolve and flower, unfolding leaf by delicate leaf, blossom by beautiful blossom.
Trying to force a change of heart would be like trying to plant an apple tree by using powerful steel excavation tools to dig a huge, enormous hole, shooting streams of water from a power truck and stamping the earth around the seedling by jumping up and down and yelling, “Faster! Harder! More!”
So, when we tell the story of Yetzias Mitrayim on Seder night, we need to be aware that there are two stories going on. One involves a “male” type of redemption, a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm that reaches down and manipulates nature, overturns empires, smashes opposition to smithereens.
But there is another story going on, a quieter, more feminine story about a slave nation deeply embedded within in the womb of Egypt, who needed to be birthed out to the light of day and of truth, who needed to be nurtured and taught. A nation whose unfolding into its role as “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” would take thousands of years.
Because, as Maimonides tells us in the Guide to the Perplexed (III:32), Hashem may manipulate nature, He may intervene to change the course of events, He may make miracles, but Hashem will never manipulate human hearts (with Pharoah being the famous exception). Redemption of the heart can never be arrogated, it can only be invited, inspired, and aroused.
WOMEN AS MIDWIVES
And so, the story of redemption—the story of our birth as a nation—starts (appropriately enough) with two midwives who feared G-d.
And, as the Midrash points out, the same skills these holy women used to birth babies, they also used to birth a nation closer to Hashem’s vision for them. Shifra, from the word meshaperes, enhanced not only the baby–but the Jewish people’s actions before G-d. Puah, whose name is related to speech, comforted babies with sweet sounds, but also used her speech to defy and argue with Pharaoh, to prophesize, to cry over her brother, to present the Jewish people well before G-d, and to argue with her father about having more children.
Way before the theatrics and the drama at the palace unfold, there is a low-key encounter between two women. One, a lowly Hebrew slave, and the other a royal princess. But, the encounter is very human one; note the lack of obsequiousness on the part of Miriam when she approaches the princess, offering her mother as a wet nurse for the baby boy found in the water. Feminine energy, focused as it is on connection, often ignores status and hierarchy. None of the usual jockeying of power which a male counterpart of this exchange might yield—just a straightforward suggestion for a win-win solution.
But it is the royal princess, Batya (meaning daughter of G-d) the most unlikely heroine of all, who underscores how the heart resides in a realm all of its own. As princes and daughter of Pharaoah, she had grown up in a home saturated with evil, yet, the Midrash tells us that she had come down to the water to wash off the effects of idol worship.
Who knows how her heart knew the truth? But it did and the truth makes her reach beyond the natural borders of herself (see Rashi, who has her stretching out her arm way further than her natural capacity) to rescue the baby from the water. And loving actions precipitate loving responses. “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to her, ‘Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son. You are not my daughter, but I shall call you my daughter” (VayikraRaba 1:3).
This was the woman who was going to raise Moshe– give him his name and his destiny. And it was in the particular setting in which Batya placed him—the royal palace–that Ibn Ezra and others suggest was crucial in cultivating the particular qualities that Moshe would need as a leader. The seeds have been planted for greatness.
MOSES AS MIDWIFE
Unlike the drama of the male kind of redemption, female redemption can feel hopeless. Growth is so inestimably slow. Maybe its all a mirage and nothing is changing at all?
How much easier it would be if we could just open up a USB port into our children’s skull and pour all our values and ideals straight into their souls? How much easier to hit the rock instead of talking to it!
Many years later, Moshe Rabbeinu, expressed his tremendous frustration to Hashem: “Why have you done evil to our servant… that you have placed the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people or give birth to it that you say to me carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling…?”
Rashi wonders at Moshe’s saying that G-d had told him to carry he people in his bosom. Where did G-d tell him that that was what he had to do? In a mind-blowing insight, Rashi concludes that this was when Hashem tells Moses, (Exodus 32:34) “go and lead the people”. Leading the people, apparently, means exactly that—carrying them and caring for them as you would a baby. It means nurturing, guiding, holding and even mollycoddling. It means being their mother as well as their father.
Rashi tells us, a few verses down, that Moshe’s anguish over this was so great that toshash kocho knekeiva, “[Moses] became as weak as a female.
The female persona is indeed weak from the perspective of the male language of power. If strength is measured by the ability to impose one’s will upon others, women have long ago discovered that that rarely works. Even with a storehouse of “male-type” resources—you may be bigger, stronger, more talented, more successful, smarter than this barely-heavier-than- a-bag-of-flour-baby, but when he won’t stop crying, or keeps throwing his food of the high chair tray, your edge is meaningless. The feminine persona has long ago learned that when you want to mold someone, to change them, to make your mission their mission, it’s not power and strength that you need.
Hitting your kid on the head, even with the best intentions in the world will not implant your values into said head and certainly not into his heart. The redemption that is needed here is the feminine art of connection.
It’s frustrating, its slow, but mothers, (on their good days) can sometimes access the truth. Those minute interactions, that caring about details, eventually (hopefully) coalesce into a life mission and message and from that little tiny seed, from those tedious hours and minutes and seconds, from the faith in the power of chinuch, faith in the power of modeling, faith in the human spirit, sometimes, a great, beautiful tree is birthed into the world.
Batya, the Egyptian princess, called the baby she saved Moshe, because ” from the water he has been drawn out”. The Midrash Leckach Tov points out that if that was the reason for his name, she should really have called him Mashuy, which means one-who– has-been-drawn-out. The name Moshe literally means one- who-will-draw-out. But our life experiences, disjointed, irrelevant, and mundane as they seem at the time, inform us, they obligate us and they transform us. Moshe was drawn from a watery death, and his entire life would be dedicated to drawing others from death, to life.
It is fascinating to note, that Moshe was our savior, our leader, our hero, our king—he was there facilitating and orchestrating all the physical salvations that our journey required—and yet the name with which the Jewish people have always referred to him, is Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher. What made the lasting impression was not the drama, but the vision he held up before us, through his actions and his teaching—revealing to us the path that leads to G-d.
HASHEM AS MIDWIFE
Behind the male redemption story, there is always the feminine subtext. In describing our emergence as a nation, Yechezkel Hanavi returns to this motif, describing the Jewish people as an abandoned new born.
“…And your navel was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing, nor where you salted and swaddled at all. No eye pitied you to do this for you..”.
The Jewish people were lost, but Hashem, in His infinite love for us, and His faith in us, reached down and gave us the opportunity to redeem ourselves from that sorry state through two mitzvos, followed by a long list of acts of nurturing, each one laden with hints of G-d’s love and longing for Israel.
“… And I washed you with water, and rinsed off your blood and I anointed you with oil , and I clothed you with embroidered garment and I shod you.. and I girded you with fine linen and I covered you with silk, and I adorned you with ornaments and I put bracelets and a necklace on your neck. And I put a nose ring on your nose and necklace on your neck and a crown of glory on your head.”
And, eventually the long hoped-for and much prayed-for day arrives, when the child stands on his own two feet and shows that his parents’ life mission is branded on his own heart and soul, and made his very own.
: “And you adorned yourself with gold and silver and your raiment was fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth….and you became exceedingly beautiful and you became fit for the throne. Then your name went out among the nations for your beauty for it is all inclusive, with my majesty that I placed upon you, says the L-rd, G-d.”
Although after this beautiful beginning, the prophecy proceeds to a tragic ending, it is still seeded with hope, and faith in the Jewish people’s ability to achieve G-d’s vision for them.
ALL OF US AS MIDWIVES
How apt it is, that in the time span between the holiday of Purim, in which our redemption was orchestrated by a woman, Esther, and the holiday of Pesach, in which our redemption was set into motion by a cadre of women with hearts full of courage and love, that the Corona virus has us all—not just women, but also men—hunkered down in that one place that has always been a woman’s domain: the home.
For generations, in the Western, masculine-adulating world we live we have viewed the world as having a backstage and a front stage. Front stage, center were the men, doing the important work– with the word important meaning visible, measurable, acquisitive and competitive. Back stage were the women who were the stage hands, doing the “unimpressive” supportive work for the main actors, either pre or post center stage.
But Corona lifted up the curtain, and now there is no front-center stage. The performance is over. The rat race is ended. The glitter and glamor are gone. All that is left is us and our inner world. The back stage has been revealed as the only stage, and the audience? Only G-d.
During the Exodus, G-d transformed the laws of nature for us. Corona has opened up a cosmic door into an inner feminine world, where we can transform our own natures—from external validation seeking, to internally focused–for Him.
Naomi Jacobs says
Lovely writing thankyou.
Yes backstage can feel unsatisfying,but we are building great edifices which are eternal.
Y. M says
This is such a moving masterpiece of truth… thank you!