The Women in Moshe's Life

I don't have much to relay on this week's parsha, so I'll share some thoughts I've jotted down in the past about some women who played a significant role in the Exodus we commemorate each Pesach. There are four specifically, which is a nice correspondent number for the Seder, in which we drink four cups of wine and mention the number four as standing for the four Immahos in the song that beings "Echad mi yodeah" [Who knows one?]. 

Speaking of mothers, let's start with Moshe's. Her name, Yocheved, signifies that her face mirrored the ziv hakavod. That is to say that the divine glory shone in her countenance, much like her the face of son, Moshe, which radiated with divine light after he received the Torah.Yocheved was a woman of great accomplishment.

 According to Midrash Hagadol, she is commemorated in Aishes Chayil as one who “set her mind on a field, acquires it and plants a vineyard from the fruits of her labors” (31:16). It was because of her that Israel was able to be called the vineyard of the Holy One Blessed Be He. Yocheved not only planted but cultivated, and the fruit of her labor is nothing less than the Jewish people. She is identified as Shifra, one of the midwives who feared G-d more than an the all-powerful ruler of Egypt and flouted Pharaoh’s decree to prevent the birth of any male children (Sota11b). Because she risked her own life to save the children, she merited to be the mother of Moshe who would redeem her people. Both as the savior of others and in daring to bring her own son into her world when all baby boys were to be thrown into the Nile, she was aided and encouraged by her daughter, Miriam.

Moshe's sister, Miriam was a prophetess who had a vision of her brother saving his people. She served as a midwife, known as Puah, side by side with her mother, played a pivotal role in her family’s life. Her verse from Aishes Chayil is “She girds her loins with might and fortifies her arms” (31:17). The Midrash Hagadol explains, “Miriam told her father when he divorced her mother, ‘Your decrees are harsher than Pharaoh’s. He decreed on the boys, and you have decreed both on the boys and girls. He is wicked so it is doubtful if his decree will hold or not, but you are a righteous man, so your decree is bound to hold. That is not all, but I have seen [through prophecy] that in the futures there will come from you the savior of Israel.’ Immediately, he remarried his wife. But when she gave birth to Moshe and had to throw him in the Nile, her mother slapped her face and said, ‘Now where is your prophecy?’ Immediately, ‘his sister stationed herself at a distance’ (Shmos 2:4).

She stationed herself to see the outcome of her prophecy, for she maintained her faith in her vision even when all odds were against her. Her parents had done what looked like the sensible thing. They separated to set the example for others to avoid the heartbreak of drowning the baby boys. In contrast, Miriam believed in a positive future and celebrated its fruition by leading the women in the song of Shiras Hayam. In addition to the two names already mentioned, Miriam bore other names that reflect her merit. She was called Ephrat because her people paru veravu [were fruitful and multiplied] as a result of her actions. She was also called Achrachel because the women went out achareyha [after her]. (Shmos Rabba 1, 17). She affirmed that her people will not only survive but merit redemption, and she took personal responsibility for seeing that vision through. Thus she is counted, along with her two illustrious brothers, among the three “good providers” that sustained Israel (Taanis 9a). She also merited to be the mother of the precursors to David and so was awarded with the household of the monarchy. Miriam utilized her roles of daughter, sister, and midwife in the service of her people. Her unwavering faith made her worthy of other roles, as prophet, leader, and the mother of kings. What Miriam saw when she stationed herself with a view of the Nile to see how her prophecy would come to be was the daughter of Pharaoh approach. 

Batya (or Bitya) is the name the daughter of Pharaoh takes when she leaves the idolatry of Egypt for the one G-d of Israel. The verse from Aishes Chayil that is associated with Batya is “She rises while it is still night and gives provisions for her household and the allotted fare to her maids” (31:15). The Midrash Hagadol elucidates, “she saw with the Holy Spirit that it is destined for her to raise the savior of Israel. So in the evenings and morning she would take her maids to stroll by the Nile. With Moshe, the Holy One Blessed Be He gave what she had requested and she rejoiced a great deal.”

Though Moshe actually had a number of names, the Torah always refers to Moshe by the name given to him by his adopted mother and no other. The name merits that distinction as a reward for the chessed [lovingkindness] of Batya (Shmos Rabba 1, 26). Batya saved Moshe’s life and brought him up as her own. She gave a name to her adopted son and was rewarded with a name to show her own adopted relationship with G-d. “The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Batya the daughter of Pharaoh, ‘Moshe was not your son, yet you called him your son; you’re not my daughter, but I call you my daughter,’” (Vayikra Rabba 1,3) for her name literally means daughter of G-d. Thus she merited to be called the daughter of her adopted Father, much like Serach, who is always referred to as “bat Asher,” though in fact she was his step-daughter. Like Serach, Batya merited to enter Gan Eden free of the pains of death.

Of course, Moshe did not stay with his adopted mother and had to flee from Egypt when the king sought his execution. In his exile from there, he found his wife, Tziporah. Tziporah, is not one we normally associate with redemption from the enslavement of Egypt, for she never even stepped foot there, according the textual account (though there is a Midrash that identifies her as the twin sister of none other than Moshe's adopted mother, for both girls were themselves adopted, one by the king and one by one of his advisors, Yithro). But without her, Moshe would not have been fully equipped for his tasks in confronting Pharaoh.
The staff Moshe used is used in bringing about the makkos was no ordinary piece of wood. According to Yalkut Shimoni (Shmos 168) the staff was not manmade but formed by G-d Himself. When Adam was expelled from Gan Eden, he took it with him. It was passed on to Noach then to Shem and his children. It then passed to Avraham, who gave it to Yitzchak. Yaakov then took it when he fled to Aram and took it with him to Egypt where he bestowed it on Yosef. Subsequently, it made its way Reuel the Midyanite. When he left Egypt, he took it and planted it in his garden. He challenged the suitors of his daughter, Tziporah, to remove it. No one was able to remove it until Moshe arrived and pulled it out, proving himself worthy of Tziporah.

Subsequently, she proved herself worthy of him, too. Her father had some misgivings about the match when he discovered Moshe’s outlaw status in Egypt, and so cast his prospective son-in-law into a pit. Tziporah sustained him by bringing him food over a period of ten years. At the end of that time, she suggested to her father that they have a look at the prisoner.When he found Moshe alive, he was astounded at the miracle and took him out. They then married and had two sons.

Afterwards, there was a second opportunity for Tziporah to rescue her husband. When Moshe was attacked by an angel, she realized what was called for, circumcised her infant son and so saved the life of the man who was to lead Israel out of Egypt. The circumstances of the rescue resonate with the verses of Yechezkel that we quote as we recite the Haggadah: “And I said to you in your blood you shall live.” This is said twice, and Chazal [our Sages] explain it to refer to two types of blood: that of milah [circumcision] and that of the korban Pesach.. The former was a prerequisite for the latter. And we see Tziporah performing milah  on her infant son, as her husband sets off on his task of leading his people out of bondage and into G-d’s service with the Pesach offering.

These four women in Moshe's life, certainly, were distinguished in their great spiritual achievements. The women in that generation are the ones who are credited with the geula [redemption]. Chazal observe that it was in the merit of righteous women that our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.


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