While Moshe is the central figure in the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim as Hashem’s emissary to deliver the Jewish people from their centuries-long bondage, it’s important to understand and recognize the outsized roles played by the myriad women in his life — women who nurtured, supported, sustained, and ultimately enabled his success in redeeming klal Yisrael.
SHIFRA & PUAH
In the earliest pages of Sefer Shemot we learn that Pharaoh addressed the midwives of the Jews, and decreed they were to murder all Jewish-born males. However, Shifra and Puah defied the despot.
We learn of Shifra and Puah’s greatness here, not just their bravery and spirituality but their brilliance. These women realized that to defy Pharaoh directly would not only result in their probable execution but would further endanger the unborn boys’ lives. Pharaoh would certainly seek out other midwives, of lesser strength and/or conviction, who would carry out his order.
These women calmly devised a way around Pharaoh’s command, as the Torah tells us, “the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live.” Not only did they save the lives of the Jewish-born infants, but they did everything they could to care for them and assure their safety and health in defiance of Pharaoh’s will – actualizing his fear.
Who were these two brave women? Chazal tell us they were none other than Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe’s mother and sister, brave women willing to risk their lives in the service of Hashem and His people. Rashi explains the mystery behind these pseudonyms – names we never hear again in the Torah: Shifra comes from the Hebrew root ùôø (shefer), to improve, referencing the way Shifra would “improve” the newborns, cleaning them after birth and straightening their limbs. Puah means “cooing” – Puah had a special gift and would coo to, and immediately calm, a crying infant to sleep.
These two women deceived Pharaoh – even to his face – ultimately denying him his planned infanticide. Subsequently, the Torah tells us that “God benefited the midwives” and that “the people increased and became very strong.” These two statements are followed by, “And it was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses.”
All are great statements and rewards, but they seem to be in a strange order; reward, statement, reward. The Or HaChaim explains that all three are, in fact, rewards. They didn’t just have their own families, they didn’t just give birth to, protect, and nurture Moshe Rabbeinu; the prosperity of the Jewish nation during that time was in their merit as well.
MIRIAM & YOCHEVED
Having failed in his intended plan to murder the Jewish males immediately upon their birth, Pharaoh decreed that all the Jewish-born males were to be thrown into the water to drown. Miriam’s father, Amram, in reaction to this devastating decree, separated from his wife; he couldn’t bear to bring a child into this world only to see it slain.
The Jewish men, observing the actions of its leaders, followed suit and separated from their wives, elevating the hardships and misery suffered by Jewish families.
Miriam challenged her father: “You are worse than Pharaoh, for he has decreed only against the males, but you, with your actions, ensure that no Jewish children will survive!”
At Miriam’s urging, Yocheved brought her husband Amram back into their home, and Moshe was born. The Jewish men followed suit and the Jewish people continued to grow and multiply.
MIRIAM, YOCHEVED & BATYA
Still, Pharaoh’s command that all male babies be thrown into the Nile persisted. Yocheved successfully concealed her newborn son for three months. When she was no longer able to hide him, she cleverly nestled her baby boy in a water-tight basket and set the basket in the river. Miriam diligently watched over her floating baby brother to ensure that the baby would live.
For all the evil of the Egyptian ruler and his compliant nation, Batya, Pharaoh’s own daughter, stood out as different, strong and independent, one who defied the decree and her own wicked father. Upon coming across the baby, she declared, “This is one of the Hebrew boys,” yet she defiantly took pity and “drew” him from the water.
Here is where things get really interesting…where we see a literal turning point. A young girl, the baby’s sister (unbeknown to Pharaoh’s daughter), intervened. You might think that this would have been a good time to panic or fear the worst. After all, the daughter of the man who was her family’s and the entire people’s worst nightmare had her hands on her baby brother. Did Miriam run? Did she hide?
No! She confidently approached the princess with a risky and certainly unsolicited proposition. “Shall I go and summon for you a nurse from the Hebrew women, who will nurse the boy for you?” she asked.
FOR YOU – twice. Was Miriam planting ideas in the Princess’ mind? Did Batya even think of taking and raising the child as her own, or had Miriam opened her eyes to this idea?
Did Miriam recognize Batya’s sensitivity, capitalize on it, and turn it into not only a life-saving moment but potentially a moment of salvation for all of Israel? We don’t know but we do know that consequently the baby was nursed and nurtured by his own mother, Yocheved, and raised in Pharaoh’s palace, growing up to be the embodiment of Hashem’s will in the story of the Exodus.
The midrash tells us that Batya denied her upbringing, disavowed idols, and converted to Judaism. The Talmud relates that Batya was, in fact, at the Nile to immerse herself to complete her conversion to Judaism on that fateful day.
According to one interpretation of our Sages, each verse of Aishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor, composed by Shlomo HaMelech, refers to remarkable women in history. Two of these women, Batya and Rachav, were converts to Judaism as adults.
Batya’s portion, “She gets up while it is still night, sustaining her household and giving a portion to her maidens,” addresses night – a time of uncertainty and fear. We know, however, that after each night comes day – right after the darkness comes the light.
Batya grew up in the darkness that was Pharaoh’s reign. She saw and noted his cruelty and recognized its evil. She saw light in Moshe, however — in his people that thrived and grew under the worst possible oppression. She chose to join the very people her father set out to destroy.
Interestingly, it was Batya, this daughter of Pharaoh, who named the baby she rescued Moshe, the first of the seven names he had, but undeniably the name that he is remembered for and identified as. More importantly, it is only by this name that Hashem ever addressed him.
It is significant that the name given to Moshe by Batya is a word based on the act of saving his life, and not on the feelings of compassion that she experienced. This communicates one of the Torah’s fundamental lessons quite eloquently: we can claim to feel a variety of things, but it is our actions in this world that have the greatest impact.
THE JEWISH WOMEN
Prior to any service in the Mishkan or the Beit HaMikdash, the Kohanim needed to wash their hands and feet. The kiyor, the wash basin that was used, was fashioned from the mirrors donated by the women of klal Yisrael. God spoke to Moshe and explained why those mirrors were so precious in His eyes. The Jewish men, suffering from the bondage and oppression of Egypt, were caving in under the weight of their suffering; they, like Amram, did not wish to procreate and bring children into their world of suffering.
But their wives remained hopeful. They beautified themselves using those mirrors, maintaining their faith and hope for better days and uplifted their dejected husbands. “In the merit of the righteous women our people were redeemed from the Egyptian exile.”