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Rosh Chodesh and the Women of the Exodus

Posted on January 27, 2020

By Hazzan Barbara Barnett

I am writing my Thursday Thought on Monday, Rosh Chodesh Shevat. As some of you may know, Rosh Chodesh is considered a holiday specifically for women. (The “why” will be the topic for another Thursday thought.) So, why do I mention it now? We are, in the annual Torah reading cycle, in the midst of retelling the story of the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and our eventual exodus, and I’m reminded of the amazing women in the story, and want to share them with you, and their goals and actions that made them both partners with G-d and heroes of our freedom from slavery.

The story begins with the midwives Puah and Shifra. For without them and those like them, the story never happens at all. We don’t know for certain whether the two women were Israelites or Egyptians. We only know they were midwives who refused Pharaoh’s order to kill each male baby born to an Israelite family. We know they assisted with the births of both Egyptian and Hebrew babies, but not whether they, themselves, were Israelites. They, and any others like them, made a dangerous decision to refuse to “follow orders,” doing the right and just thing, rather than the expedient, safe, thing.

The preeminent Torah commentator Rashi 1040-1105 explained that the name Shifra originates in the Hebrew root m’shaperet, “to beautify” or “to swaddle or cleanse, perhaps to “make things better.” Puah’s name may signify a gentle, soothing way of speech. Both were courageous and, perhaps, saved an entire people.

Then Moses is born, and his mother Yocheved, defying Pharoah’s orders to hand him over and be murdered, instead hides him, until she can no longer can. Miriam, then, as you all know, places Moses in a basket and sends him down the River Nile, where he is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, known as Batya. Batya knew that Moses was likely an Israelite baby, yet she took him in and raised him as her own. But her action, quietly defiant, saved Moses for his yet-to-come (co-) starring role in saving the Israelites from slavery. Her name can be translated as “bat yah,” no less than a Daughter of G-d, and in a profound way G-d’s partner in the redemption of the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery. 

Last, but certainly not least, is Tziporah, Moses’s wife, who saved Moses from G-d’s wrath while they were encamped on the route to Egypt before the Exodus. 

Miriam, Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Batya, Tziporah: five women who embody the idea of smart, courageous women, who knew their value and acted upon it when called to do so! As we begin this new month of Shevat and continue to read about these brave women, I wish you a (slightly belated) Chodesh Tov.