By Jordana Gilman
Moses gets most of the press when it comes to Passover, the epic story of freedom from slavery we are commanded to repeat every year around this time. Moses is the Prince of Egypt, the Prophet, the face of the Israelites. He gets credit for being God’s agent, for raising his staff to split the Red Sea and for leading the Israelites out of bondage.
But who gets credit for Moses?
There is a saying that “behind every great man, there is a great woman.” In this case, there’s a whole softball team of great women behind Moses. And these women had no reassuring chats with God in a burning bush, no magic rods, no plagues to back them up. These women were just fearless.
First, there were the women who gave Moses life. These were the midwives who did not follow Pharaoh’s command to put all newborn Israelite boys to death. As Rashi understands it, Pharaoh gave this command to Yoheved (Moses’ mother) and Miriam (his sister) directly, and they directly disobeyed, allowing the baby boys to live. This included Moses.
Then, there were the women who saved Moses’ life. This was Pharaoh’s own daughter, who found the floating baby Moses and recognized him as “one of the children of the Hebrews” and had compassion on him (Exodus 2: 5). She raised him as her own, knowing from day one that Moses was alive because her father’s orders were disobeyed. Then came Moses’ wife, Zipporah. In one of the Torah’s most mysterious dramas, an angel of death swallows half of Moses’ body while they are camped in the desert, and Zipporah recognizes this as a sign to circumcise her son. “So Zipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son’s foreskin and cast it to his feet” in order to save Moses’ life (Exodus 4:25). This tale of “the bridegroom of blood” is an often overlooked example of Zipporah’s bravery and quick-thinking.
Finally, after Moses has led the people of Israel on a dangerous, miraculous, and utterly exhausting chase through the desert and the sea, Miriam sees the people are in need of a pick-me-up. “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” (Exodus 15:20). Miriam’s energy was contagious, and all the women joined in without being asked. Miriam’s selfless style of leading by example and inspiring people to action through her own enthusiasm is a model for all of us.
So this year, when you tell your children of our exodus from Egypt, don’t forget to give credit to the fearless women in the Passover story who made it possible.
And may you love life like the midwives, be brave like Yoheved, have the compassion of Pharaoh’s daughter, be quick-witted as Zipporah, and exuberant like Miriam.
Jordana Gilman graduated Cornell University this January and will be attending SUNY Upstate Medical University in the fall.