Today began the week of serious preparation for Pesach (Passover). For several weeks, we have been doing serious spring cleaning, nested with the rest of our daily and weekly routines. This week, much of the rest of our daily routines will be dismantled, as I organize the buying of Pesach foods, the turning over of the kitchen for Pesach, and the preparation of the Seder shel Pesach--the ritual meal--at which we remember our redemption from Egypt.
As we physically prepare our home and our table for this great commemoration, we also prepare ourselves spiritually to come forth from slavery into our yearly encounter of what it means to be truly free. As it is written in the Hagaddah--Lit. The Telling--which is the book read and told at the Seder: "In every generation, you shall regard yourselves as having personally come forth from Mitzrayim (Lit. the Narrow Places--Egypt).
This week, as I spend my days removing Chametz and preparing for the Festival, I thought I'd use this blog to reflect on aspects of the story that are meaningful to me.
A Web of Women
The biblical commentator Susan Niditch says:
"The liberation of the people Israel from slavery in Egypt begins with the saving acts of women." (WTC).
The stories of our sages and our old wives tell us this: that without these saving acts of women, we would have never been part of the great story of coming forth from slavery to freedom.
The story begins with the hateful command of Pharoah:
"A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground." (Shemot 1:8-11
And so, we are told, Egypt enslaved our people Israel, and made for us bitterness and bondage. But still, the story tells us, we continued to incease and become numerous. And so came the edict of the killing of the baby boys.
In the Midrash, we hear that upon this terribly decree, the men of Israel decided to refuse to sleep with their wives, so that no children would be born only to die. But the women of Israel refused to accept this. Although enslaved, they made themselves irresistible to their husbands, so that the people of Israel would survive until G-d remembered the divine promises.
Thus, it was by the actions of women that Moshe was conceived and brought to life.
The Midrash also tells that Yocheved was herself a midwife, as was her daughter Miriam, and that they were the two Hebrew midwives that disobeyed Pharoah, and said: "The Hebrew women are vigorous (chayot--the root can mean wild, but it also can mean life); before the midwife can come to them, they have delivered."
These are women of no small courage, for they knew that they must lie to Pharoah in order to preserve the lives of the Hebrew sons.
The story of the woven ark is written in such a way as to remind us of the other ark, the one that Noach made to save life on earth. So, too, does this ark save the people Israel.
Israel was ultimately redeemed through women's work.
Work that deals with the blood and salty water of birth, human milk, and the physical and real stuff of life.
I think about this a great deal as I scrub away the stuff of life, the grime of everyday sustenance in the kitchen, removing the leavening and making way for a new beginning of freedom.
Freedom does not come easily. It takes hard work and courage, and the strength to resist the decrees of tyranny--large and small. Like Yocheved, Miriam, the Hebrew women and midwives, and Pharoah's daughter and the women of the palace, we must recognize the power we must defy, and be more in awe of the source of freedom than of the power of tyrants. As women, immersed in the physical stuff of life--blood and birth, tears and mother's milk--we respond from a place of our power, rooted in moral and ethical reasoning, as well as an emotional response to the suffering of ordinary people who are deprived of their lives by the arrogance of tyrants.
For me, as I ponder this week in the midst of my preparations, the lesson of the women of Exodus is this: they responded not only with their reason, but with their compassion and care for human lives. They responded not only with their heads, but with their hearts. And as whole human beings, they brought forth, with their nameless labor, the freedom and redemption of a people.
As an old song goes:
"It was a web of women, a web of women,
that kept the Hebrew children alive.
It was a web of women, a web of women,
that helped the Hebrew people to survive."
(I wish I knew who wrote this. I remember only the chorus from years past. If you know, comment, so I may give credit).