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The Passover story begins with women

Passover Maxwell Hous_Gast.jpg

FILE: March 15, 2011: A 1936 Maxwell House Haggadah alongside a Seder plate in New York. ((AP Photo/Stace Maude))

When does the liberation from Egyptian slavery begin? Most would say with Moses. Yet long before he learned how to speak truth to power, there was a young girl whose daring act paved the way for Moses.

Imagine the conditions depicted in the biblical book of Exodus: Pharaoh had decreed the death of all Hebrew male babies. The entire socioeconomic and political system he constructs aims at the destruction of a people. Yet at every step of the way, women flout his edict, collaborating across divisions of class, religion, and ethnicity in their insubordinate solidarity. 

First, two midwives refuse to comply with the law of the land and let the boys live. Next, when Pharaoh commands that all male children be thrown into the Nile, a mother cleverly seeks to preserve the life of her baby boy by hiding him in a watertight basket. After all, Pharaoh didn’t say anything about a PFD (“Personal Flotation Device”) when ordering boys to be cast into the river.

Although we often remember the exodus as beginning with Moses, the biblical author points to Miriam, and her courageous action, as the point of departure for this story of liberation.

Then even Pharaoh’s own daughter defies his deadly command when she happens to discover the baby in the basket. She knows he is one of the persecuted. “This is one of the Hebrew children!” she announces. Yet instead of carrying out her father’s orders, she takes pity on him.

It is at this turning point that a young girl undertakes a fateful intervention. As the baby’s sister, she had stationed herself on the banks of the river to see what would happen to the child. When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him, this girl might have expected the worst. But instead of fleeing, she fearlessly approaches the princess with a daring and unsolicited proposition:  “Shall I go and get for you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”

Notice the double mention of “for you.” Did the princess ever contemplate taking the boy as her own?  Or does this girl (who shrewdly doesn’t identify herself as the baby’s sister), open the princess’s eyes to a new possibility, and show how it can be realized? We cannot know. But in either case, the sister found a way to connect to this woman’s sense of compassion—and turn it into life-sustaining action. Working together, these women defy Pharaoh’s decree of death.

As a result, the child is nursed by his own mother, and eventually brought to the palace as the adopted son of the Pharaoh’s daughter. The child is none other than Moses, the one who will lead his people to freedom. His sister, the young girl, is named Miriam. But although we often remember the exodus as beginning with Moses, the biblical author points to Miriam, and her courageous action, as the point of departure for this story of liberation.

Consider the details and their significance: No one tells Miriam to take responsibility for the child. The mother disappears after one last act of desperation, placing the baby in the water. It is the sister who miraculously turns this act of desperation into a moment of salvation. But this young girl has more than courage. She also has wisdom. Seeing a spark of sympathy in another human being—in Pharaoh's own daughter no less!—she is able to connect with it and kindle it, to fan it into a life-giving flame.

Miriam’s world is one in which social, political, and economic structures are all designed to oppress the body and crush the spirit. It is a dehumanizing world. But the abuse fails to vanquish her faith in humanity.   

The first miracle of the exodus is the triumph of the spirit—the ability to remain human under such inhuman conditions, to recognize compassion in the face of the other, to muster human resources for the purpose of defending the vulnerable, and to act boldly in resistance to brutal laws. Miriam’s refusal to relinquish her humanity or discount that of Pharaoh’s daughter is an act of freedom that opens a path to collective liberation and to an exodus from an old order.

Dr. Jacob L. Wright teaches Hebrew Bible at Emory University. His latest book is "David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory on King David" (Cambridge University 2014). He is now offering a free online course on the Bible. Click here for more information. Follow him on Twitter@JacobLWright.

Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi is Professor of Bible Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. Her book, "The Torah: A Women’s Commentary" (with Andrea Weiss) won the National Jewish Book of the Year Award in 2008.