This week’s Torah portion is the very beginning of the book of Exodus, and it is one of my favorites. It tells the stories of women who acted ethically, despite an unethical and cruel power structure. Individually and in pairs, they faced terrible odds and risked their lives to save others.
This is the only time that the Torah gives us a group of strong female role models. But there they are:
The midwives Shifrah and Puah who defied Pharaoh and saved baby boys from death.
Yoheved and Miriam who hid baby Moses as long as they could, then floated him down the Nile in a tiny boat under Miriam’s watchful eye.
Pharaoh’s Daughter who pulled Moses from the river and despite knowing that he was a Hebrew, brought him into her home as her adopted son.
And later in the Torah portion, Moses’ wife Tzipporah who circumcised their son when God sought to kill him.
Even more astounding is that we know the women’s names. The only one of the six who has a title rather than a name is Pharaoh’s Daughter. Our ancient sages – all men — thought that she merited a real name, and called her Batya, which means daughter of God.
Names matter. The poet Zelda penned a famous poem called “Each of Us Has a Name.” In it, she lists the many names we earn throughout our lives; from our parents, our neighbors, our experiences, the environment, our actions, and ultimately our deaths.
In Hebrew, the book of Exodus is called Shemot, Names. It begins with a list of the names of the men who went down to Egypt with Jacob. No women are named. But it is the women whose names we remember and honor for their efforts centuries later in pushing back against an evil empire.
Here in North America the winter solstice has just passed. The days will lengthen, and a new secular year will begin. As we enter into a new year and the Exodus story, we can take a moment to celebrate the women – both known and anonymous — who birthed us, the ones who generation after generation stood up for their families, for their rights, for their culture and their religion, and who changed the world.