Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Vayakhel Pekudei:What women do and Why women are rewarded as they carry the burden of faith into the future

For the last few weeks it has not been easy to find the women in the Torah readings, but now in Vayakhel the women are up front and unmissable. The mishkan/tabernacle is being made as a response to the failings of the people that led to the creation of the golden calf, an idol to comfort the people in the absence of Moses while he was away on Sinai sequestered with God.

It has become abundantly clear that the people are not yet ready for a God with no physical presence or aide-memoire. The mishkan will remind the people that God is dwelling among them. It is a powerful symbol they will carry around with them as they go on their journey. It will, so to speak, keep the people on the religious straight and narrow.

The details of the mishkan have been given in the last chapters – long dry lists of materials and artefacts. Now the text warms up with the human and emotional dimension:

וַיָּבֹ֕אוּ כָּל־אִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־נְשָׂא֣וֹ לִבּ֑וֹ וְכֹ֡ל אֲשֶׁר֩ נָֽדְבָ֨ה רוּח֜וֹ אֹת֗וֹ הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה לִמְלֶ֨אכֶת אֹ֤הֶל מוֹעֵד֙ וּלְכָל־עֲבֹ֣דָת֔וֹ וּלְבִגְדֵ֖י הַקֹּֽדֶשׁ:

 “And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and brought the Eternal’s offering, for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments.” (35:21)

All the people for whom this project truly mattered, everyone who was invested in the creation of the reminder of the divine, brought their gifts. Gifts of valuable materials, gifts of their time, gifts of their dedication to make this work.

And then comes the strangest of verses.  (35:22)

וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֖ים עַל־הַנָּשִׁ֑ים כֹּ֣ל ׀ נְדִ֣יב לֵ֗ב הֵ֠בִ֠יאוּ חָ֣ח וָנֶ֜זֶם וְטַבַּ֤עַת וְכוּמָז֙ כָּל־כְּלִ֣י זָהָ֔ב וְכָל־אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֵנִ֛יף תְּנוּפַ֥ת זָהָ֖ב לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

And they came, the men upon the women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold to the Eternal.

The construction of the verse is notable and odd. The phrasing “hanashim al hanashim – the men upon the women” suggests that the women carried the men, brought them along with them, that they came first with their jewellery, and only then did the men bring their gifts. All of the emphases on the voluntary nature of the donations, the repetitions that only those who wanted to give did so, culminates in the idea that it is the women who are keen to give their valuables in the service of God, that the men were carried along by the enthusiasm of the women.

The role of the women is reinforced a few verses later:

וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֥ה חַכְמַת־לֵ֖ב בְּיָדֶ֣יהָ טָו֑וּ וַיָּבִ֣יאוּ מַטְוֶ֗ה אֶֽת־הַתְּכֵ֨לֶת֙ וְאֶת־הָ֣אַרְגָּמָ֔ן אֶת־תּוֹלַ֥עַת הַשָּׁנִ֖י וְאֶת־הַשֵּֽׁשׁ: כו וְכָ֨ל־הַנָּשִׁ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָשָׂ֥א לִבָּ֛ן אֹתָ֖נָה בְּחָכְמָ֑ה טָו֖וּ אֶת־הָֽעִזִּֽים:

And all the women who were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, the blue, and the purple, the scarlet, and the fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun the goats’ hair. (35:25-26)

The vignette continues with yet another verse emphasising the role of the women in this work:

כָּל־אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשָּׁ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָדַ֣ב לִבָּם֘ אֹתָם֒ לְהָבִיא֙ לְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהוָֹ֛ה לַֽעֲשׂ֖וֹת בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֑ה הֵבִ֧יאוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל נְדָבָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֹֽה:

Every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for all the work, which the Eternal had commanded by the hand of Moses to be made, the children of Israel brought a freewill-offering to the Eternal v29

The repetition of the activities of the women, of their enthusiasm, their public role in both providing materials and in working those materials for use in the mishkan is surely telling us something important.

The commentators of course have noticed this. While Rashi in the tenth century plays down the idea of ha’anashim al hanashim meaning anything more than the men came with the women, the tosafists of the 12th and 13th century build on the idea of the women carrying the men along. They note the list of jewellery described were essentially feminine possessions and say that the verse is alluding to the men taking the women to bring their jewellery under the impression that they would not want to give it away. Imagine their surprise then when the women are not only willing to give their jewellery for the mishkan, they are actually pleased to do so. This stands in direct opposition to the earlier incident when jewellery was given to the priesthood – the incident of the golden calf, when the midrash tells us – and the tosafists remind us – that the women did not want to give their jewellery to such an enterprise, seeing through the project for the idolatry it was, and the men had torn the jewellery from the ears, fingers and necks of their reluctant womenfolk.

This midrashic interpretation places the women in the role of truly understanding the religious response, and the men showing less emotional intelligence. It is supported some verses later in the creation of the mishkan when the women give their mirrors for the copper washstand.

וַיַּ֗עַשׂ אֵ֚ת הַכִּיּ֣וֹר נְח֔שֶׁת וְאֵ֖ת כַּנּ֣וֹ נְחֹ֑שֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת֙ הַצֹּ֣בְאֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר צָֽבְא֔וּ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד:

And [Betzalel] made the washstand of copper, and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the Tzevaot/ legions of serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting. (Ex 38:8)

Who were these women who did service at the door of the Tent of Meeting? What was the service that they did? And why did they have copper mirrors?

They appear also in the Book of Samuel (1Sam:2:22) Now Eli was very old; and he heard all that his sons did unto all Israel, and how that they lay with the women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting.

In both occasions the women are at the door of the tent of meeting, the place where people brought their vows, where the priesthood purified themselves before entering, a liminal space of enormous importance.  The verb צֹּ֣בְא֔ tzaddi beit alef is best known to us as something God does – We often call God Adonai Tzeva’ot, the God of the Hosts/Legions – it  has a military context rather than a religious one.

But in the Book of Numbers we find the verb used to describe something else – not a military action but the service of the Levites done in and around the Mishkan. This verb is the priestly activity, a ministry, something done by the members of the tribe of Levi, whose role is to ensure that the priesthood is able to fulfil its sacred function. (see Numbers 4:23, 35, 39, 43 and 8:24)

So while there is a tendency in tradition to see these women as low status, cultic prostitutes or camp followers, the text does not support this view and indeed it is possible to read it quite differently. The women who give their mirrors to have the polished copper washstand that is so important in the system of ritual purity are women of status and dignity, whose work in ministry is more important to them than what are often seen as the more usual girly activities of makeup and grooming.

The midrash (Tanhuma) again picks up the story of the mirrors, and while it does not give the women any status in the priestly activities (instead ignoring their position at the doorway), it does give them some real honour by telling the story that in Egypt, after the decree of Pharaoh that all baby boys would be killed, the men became despondent. Slavery had sapped their strength and their emotional resilience and they had decided not to create a stake in the future but to live separately from their wives and desist from intercourse or procreation. The women however were not prepared for this to happen, and so they used their mirrors to make themselves as beautiful and irresistible as possible, then going to their husbands in order to seduce them and become pregnant.

It was the role of the mirrors in this activity that is so important. The women had used them in order to show their faith in the future, they were a symbol not only of sexual attractiveness and sensual preparations, they were a symbol of faith, of resilience, of the emotional and religious intelligence sadly lacking in the men.

Rashi quotes this midrash at this verse, and goes even further. He says that Moses [and Betzalel] did not want to take the mirrors (they are listed separately from the earlier donations), presumably because they associated them with sensuality, with women’s actions to initiate sex, but Rashi tells us that God ordered him to take them.

It seems that God is less fearful of women’s bodies and sexuality than Moses was. Indeed God is reported to have said “These mirrors are more precious to Me than anything else”

Because the mishkan is said to have been dedicated on Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the new month of Nisan), there is a tradition that the women should be rewarded for their faith, their resilience, their innovation and proactive donations, and given a special holiday on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Over time it appears that every Rosh Chodesh has become  women’s special days, when no work is done and women celebrate and enjoy the time.  Many women and women’s groups celebrate Rosh Chodesh together, but I wonder how many realise that the root of this tradition is the power and resilience of the women when the men failed to live up to what was necessary. I wonder how many women realise that the ease  which the women had to initiate intimacy, the ministry which they offered at the liminal border between the sacred space and the secular space, the understanding the women showed to not offer their jewellery for idolatry but to run to offer it for the mishkan – all of this is in our tradition and deserves to be highlighted. For it isn’t only the women for whom this story is unfamiliar, it is particularly those men who have studied and who know these texts but who choose not to teach or to publicise them.

If we learn anything from these verses is that the women had a role every bit as important and active as the men, that they were not only routinely alongside but that they were also on occasions the leaders, the ones who carried the flow, the agenda setters.

Vayakhel means to bring together a community. Pekudei has a number of meanings, to visit, to account, to calculate, to encounter. When we read these texts we need to remember that a community is accounted, encountered and needs ALL its members.

Parashat Bo: amid the drama and death in Egypt God gives a glimmer of hope for feminism

When Moses wanted to warn of a plague that would affect every single family from the most powerful in the land to the most vulnerable and powerless, he chooses a telling analogy – he tells Pharaoh “and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 11:5)

What do we learn from this? We learn that the normative belief of Moses and of Pharaoh is that the lowest of the low in Egyptian society was the shifcha – the female servant – in particular the one whose job was the physical labour of grinding the corn on the millstones.

In human society this woman who worked behind the millstones, completely unseen, and the product of whose work was the most critical and basic foodstuff – she was at the very bottom of the pile, only above the animal herds.

Midrash notices her – in Pesikta Rabbati (ch 17) we have the question why she should also become a victim of the tenth plague, losing her firstborn child like the rest of non-Israelite society, and unsurprisingly it enters the realm of apologetics, and an explanation supporting this position is devised :“because the children of the slave women were also enslaving the Israelites, and they were happy about their misfortune”

Even in the world of slaves it seems, there is no compassion for fellow sufferers, the hierarchy and the need to enslave others, is assumed.

She seems to me to be a paradigm for women’s work through the ages. She is barely noticed, hidden behind the millstones, her gender and her status as servant both contributing to her concealment. She is the definition of what society has constructed as “worthless”, even while she is doing work that is not only of real value but that is utterly necessary for the society to continue – grinding the flour for the bread is the work on which all other factors build. Women’s work has always been valued as less-than. Be it home making or child rearing, tending to the sick and to the elderly, in service to others or even if it is innovative and creative, society values it less, sees it as inferior. And sadly girls absorb this world view early –gender stereotypes seem to be functioning in children as young as six years old[i]

Yet the biblical text views the shifcha – the bondmaid – in Hebrew society differently – they are not so hidden from view. It seems that the shifcha is the name of the maid given directly to the women by their menfolk in order to help them in their lives.  Hagar is introduced as a shifcha belonging to Sarah (Gen 16:1) though she is called an amah when she has Abraham’s child.  Zilpah and Bilhah are similarly introduced as Shifchot when given by their father to Leah and Rachel on their marriages to Jacob. The shifcha helps her mistress fulfil her work – in these cases she goes so far as to provide children with the husband of her mistress, functioning as a surrogate. It is a status both lowly and without personal identity or autonomy and yet at the same time the shifcha is in the heart of the family, bearing children who are recognised and who will inherit. Her function is to support and build the status of her mistress and in so doing she will herself grow in status.

In the Ten Commandments the status of the servants (admittedly av’decha v’amat’cha) means they also do no work on Shabbat.  Their power may be low and their vulnerability great, but God notices them and cares for them.

And this may explain the disappearance from the text of these women described by Moses as the very lowest of Egyptian society.  For in the very next chapter when the plague he is warning about comes to pass we read “And it came to pass at midnight, that the Eternal smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 12:29)

The shifcha who worked behind the mill has been replaced here by the captive in the dungeon. And we have to ask why. Is it that Moses got it wrong, that the shifcha was not quite at the bottom of the pile? Is it that the two groups, captives and maidservants, are essentially synonyms?

I don’t think Moses got it wrong, and I don’t think that the two groups fully equate – the imprisoned captive or the hard working servant woman. I have the feeling that God noticed when Moses issued his threat, God saw that these women who were unsung and uncared for but who worked for the society – in their case to feed them –did not deserve this total lack of respect that Pharaoh and Moses assumed. God didn’t buy into the idea that “women’s work” – the kind of work that creates and cooks the food, that ensures there is clean clothing and that the home is functioning and hygienic; the kind of work like cleaning offices when everyone else has gone home or visiting the sick or elderly and helping with their basic needs – God sees the value even when sometimes society doesn’t.

When Moses and Pharaoh demonstrate that they do not see the women because the society in which they lived do not see the women, God has a little extra lesson to give. The story is dramatic, the tenth plague particularly cruel and unfair leading us to much soul searching about what kind of a God could behave like this – but the glimmer of fairness and valuing of someone shows through as God subtly shifts from the warning to the action. And it makes me see a God working in a patriarchal context but refusing to be bound by it.

[i] Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389–391.

Shifra & Puah, midwives of our history. Parashat Shemot names some strong women without whom Moses would not have survived.

After a dearth of women in the last sidra, the beginning of the book of Exodus simply teems with them.  Many are unnamed and described only in their relationship to men : We meet the daughter of the tribe of Levi who marries a man of Levi at the beginning of Chapter 2. In the dangerous world of a Pharaoh determined to suppress the Israelite population by killing every male child not only has a baby but hides him for three months, before making a vessel of bulrushes and placing the child in it to be caught in the reeds at the river’s edge.

We meet the sister of this child who watches to see what will happen.  She observes  the daughter of Pharaoh who comes with her maids to bathe in the river. Seeing the little vessel  she sends one maid to fetch it and on finding  the baby expresses compassion for him. The sister comes from her hiding place and suggests to the Pharaoh’s daughter that she can find a wet-nurse.  On gaining approval for this suggestion the sister calls the child’s mother who agrees to nurse the child in exchange for money from the Pharaoh’s daughter.

The baby is the centre of the story here, but there are three women who contrive to save his life, two of whom we will later learn are Yocheved his mother and Miriam his sister. The daughter of Pharaoh remains anonymous.

Once the baby is grown, he is brought back to the daughter of Pharaoh who names him Moses, because, bible reports, “ I drew him out of the water”.  While we may know that the blood relatives of the baby are present, at this moment there is a formal adoption of the child into the Egyptian fold.

The next thing we know is that Moses, having killed an Egyptian taskmaster  for hurting an Israelite man, is fleeing for his life from the anger of Pharaoh, and now we meet seven more unidentified women – the seven daughters of Reuel, priest of Midian.

One of these women will shortly be named as she is given to Moses for a wife – Zipporah. And Zipporah gives birth to a boy, Gershom, named for Moses’ alienation: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.‘ It seems that Moses does not circumcise his son or bring him into the brit/covenant of Abraham, either because this is unknown to him or because his alienation extends to his relationship with the Israelites. When, after his meeting with God in the wilderness, he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews, his life is once again in danger, it is Zipporah who saves him. In an obscure passage “God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it as his feet, and she said ‘surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me”. So God let him alone, and she said “A bridegroom of blood in regard to circumcision”

Two more figures make up the set of women in this passage who surround and support Moses – the midwives Shifra and Puah.

Shifra and Puah are midwives in Egypt. They are therefore at the cutting-edge of the Royal decree to ensure that all the Hebrew baby boys are murdered at birth.  The survival of the Israelite people is dependent on their actions. Shifra and Puah disobey the Royal decree, because , the text tells us, they feared/revered God. When called to account by Pharaoh this is not what they tell him, instead they say the Hebrew women are like animals (חָיוֹת) and before the midwives can get to them they have already delivered their babies. The narrator then tells us that  “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that God made households  בָּתִּים for them” – a reference to both material goods and to children.

The story (and the chapter) ends with Pharoah’s decree repeated, but this time he broadens his audience from the midwives to the whole people: And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (1:22).  While he does not challenge the midwives’ version of the story he extends the diktat to all of the people.

So who are these women who pivot our history so decisively and so bravely?

While the Masoretic tradition assumes that they are themselves Hebrew women, this is by no means clear.  Their names are understood as more likely to be Semitic than Egyptian. Shifra (from the root שפר) means something along the lines of beauty/clarity but the root also gives us the noun “shofar” the horn that is blown to call to attention. The name Puah is likely also to mean to shine/beauty but neither of these names is easy to translate or to mine meaning from – or even identity – from.

The Talmud tells us “Rav and Shmuel [interpreted the verse העבריות למילדות ] One said: a woman and her daughter, and one said: a woman and her mother in-law. He who said a woman and a daughter: they were Yocheved and Miriam. He who said a women and her mother in law: they were  Yocheved and Elisheva.” (BT Sotah 11b)

From this interpretation emerged all the midrashim and commentary (and Masoretic vocalisation) that Shifra and Puah were both Hebrew women and of the family of Moses.

But the interpretation conflicts both with what the text tells us and with the emotional ‘sense’ of the piece. Would Pharaoh really ask Hebrew women to murder the baby boys of their fellow women?  Surely this is a task he would entrust to women from another ethnic identity? And when the midwives explain to Pharaoh why they are not fulfilling his order, they talk about the Hebrew women as being unlike Egyptian women, saying they are ‘as animals’. There is no sense that either they or Pharaoh are doing anything other than seeing the Hebrew women as ‘other’ than, and less than them – the Egyptians.

And what about the information that God dealt well with the midwives and rewarded them [with households]? From everything else we know about Miriam and Yocheved, they were not rewarded materially, nor did they become the heads of households. The correlation simply does not ring true.

So why does the tradition speak of Shifra and Puah as being not only not Egyptian women who revered God, but also tries to identify them with the Hebrew women who protected Moses’ life?

From a modern perspective we need to ask  why the tradition chooses to narrow down how the text is read so that named and autonomous Egyptian women become Hebrew women whose introduction to us is only in relation to the men. And also we need to question the erasure of the real identity of Shifra and Puah as Egyptian women who revere God and who choose to serve God and rebel against the Pharaoh from their own belief systems and through their own agency.

The text of the Hebrew bible – at least the consonants of the Hebrew bible, was agreed upon by the second century CE. But the vowels of that text – which could dramatically alter meaning – were not agreed upon at that time. It took the work of the ba’alei ha’mesorah, groups of scholarly scribes working from about the 7th to the 10th century CE to finally standardise the grammar of the text – its vowels, the breaks (verses and paragraphs), the accenting/cantillation marks.

This is important because the identity of the women as either Hebrew or Egyptian relies on the vocalisation of the letters of the two words        למילדות.   העבריות    Depending on the vowels we can either read the words as “to the Hebrew midwives” or as “to the midwives of the Hebrew women” (grammatical point – whether there is a patach under the lamed and a dagesh in the mem or a chirik under the lamed and no dagesh)

There are other texts which operate on the vocalisation of the text as “midwives of the Hebrew women” – ie that understand Shifra and Puah to be Egyptian. The Septuagint, for example, the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek which was completed in the 3rd Century understands the text this way. Josephus in his “Antiquities” (1st Century) describes the women as Egyptian midwives who served the Hebrew women. Some other biblical commentators also understand the text to mean that the women were Egyptian (eg Abarbanel, Judah heHasid). Most interestingly there are fragments of texts which specifically name Shifra and Puah as Egyptian “righteous women who converted to Judaism” (Yalkut Shimoni does so (@13th Century), and there is a fragment from the Cairo genizah (@10th Century) which also lists Shifra and Puah as righteous gentile women who helped the Israelite people and who revered God.

Since the Masoretes vocalised the text to make the midwives Hebrew women, and Rashi follows the tradition from BT  Sotah we find ourselves corralled to seeing them not as brave Egyptian women who followed their consciences and put their faith in God, but as Hebrew women doing exactly what we would expect them to do, and indeed see them as the sister and mother of Moses whose function was entirely about protecting him as an infant.

Shifra and Puah, two brave women who stood up against the powers in their country, who saw human beings where the Pharaoh saw a population of migrants threatening his country, who revered God and acted both morally and with compassion, remind us that we are not alone as Jews. Through them and through others like them we see that God is not just ‘ours’, but is a universal God with whom we Jews have a particular relationship (as other have a particular, and different relationship). Shifra and Puah, whose names describe beauty, are also women who radiate morality and who call us to arms, to fight for what is right.

So why was the agency of two righteous gentile women erased in this way? Because they were foreign? Because they were women? Because they were necessary to Moses’ survival and pivotal in the narrative arc? Because they took risks and made their own decisions against the power of the Pharaoh?

Is the erasure of their identities and their active choices that changed our history forever  down to conspiracy or to accident?  I leave the reader to decide.

Lot: a cautionary tale of superficial success and the victimisation of the powerless

Lot, the nephew and heir apparent of Abraham is a man with barely any redeeming features in the biblical account. We meet him first in the genealogies following the flood, when we are told that “Terach begot Avram, Nahor and Haran, and Haran begot Lot, and Haran died in the presence of his father Terach in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldees.” The fatherless boy is taken into the household of his grandfather, and Terach, Avram and Lot leave Ur to go to Canaan, but settle in Haran, where Terach dies. God speaks to Avram, and he moves on towards Canaan, taking Lot with him. Famine drives them to Egypt where Avram claims that Sarah is not his wife but his sister, and while this saves his life it also puts Sarah into Pharaoh’s harem – until God intervenes and together they all leave Egypt much richer than they had arrived.

The land could not support the flocks and herds of both Avraham and Lot; there is fighting between the herdsmen of the two men, and Abraham suggests that they part company and go in separate directions.  Lot journeys east towards the cities of the plain, Avraham goes to Canaan and again he is promised all the land as far as he can see, to be the eternal possession of his – so far non-existent – descendants.

We hear no more of Lot for a while, instead we witness the births of first Ishmael and then Isaac, and it becomes clear that Lot is no longer the heir apparent – the two households have separated permanently, whatever might have been is no longer a thread in the narrative.

And then comes the cataclysm at Sodom, and Lot’s family are back, centre stage, as we watch with horror the different tragedies unfold.

We get a good, close look at Lot, and we learn too about his family. It is not a pretty sight.

To begin with he parallels his uncle Abraham’s hospitable behaviour. The two messengers of God arrive at Sodom in the evening, and come across Lot sitting at the city gate. It is a significant time as the night is coming, and a significant place in the city where all the communal activity is centred. The implication is that Lot, whose youth was rootless and dependent, is well integrated into the city, either doing business or demonstrating his status in some other way.

Lot is keen to offer his home hospitality and we soon find out why – a mob surrounds his house apparently demanding he hand over his guests for the sexual pleasure of the crowd. Lot goes out not to send the people away but to suggest a compromise – he will not hand over the men who were guests under his roof and his protection, instead he will hand over his two virgin daughters for the use of the crowd. It is at this point the modern reader despairs. While apparently taking his hospitality duties seriously, Lot is prepared to sacrifice his daughters to the baying crowd. We can only wonder what he learned from the actions of Avram who called Sarah his sister rather than his wife and allowed her to be taken into the pharaoh’s harem in order to protect his own life.

The visitors reach out to Lot, bring him back into the house, and smite the crowd outside with blindness so that they are comically unable to find the doorway, though they kept on trying. Lot is told to find his family and take them out of the city which God will destroy. Lot goes to speak to his sons in law, but they do not take him seriously. He makes no attempt to talk to his daughters.  As dawn rises the angels urge him to go with his wife and two unmarried daughters but inexplicably he lingers, and a merciful God transports them out of the city almost magically, warning him to head for the mountains and not to look back, but Lot prevaricates, saying the mountains are too far away, asking if he can survive in a nearby city, Zoar, and God agrees to protect that city from the coming catastrophe.

The fire and brimstone comes, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah are destroyed, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt, but through the merit of Abraham Lot is saved. He and his daughters are afraid to stay in Zoar, so they leave and go to live in the mountains, where his daughters conclude that no one else is left alive and so they make a plan to sleep with him in order to ‘preserve his seed’. Having got him drunk, first the elder and then the younger daughter sleep with Lot in order to become pregnant by him, and thus bible tells us of the origins of two important – and inimical – peoples, the Moabites and the Ammonites.

Lot comes over as a man who has been given wealth and status but who below that surface is a weak and selfish buffoon, a man of straw. He is interesting to the narrative only through his relationship with his uncle Abraham, a branch of the family tree that might have been important but which now is irrelevant. He is the father of four daughters, none of whom he thought to protect. His  wife deserves our pity – unnamed, unspoken to, she is referred to only in relation to leaving the cataclysm, she isn’t given the message not to look behind them and so she does, with fatal consequences, though I can’t help feeling that there may have been some relief in no longer having to hitch her life to his.

She is a “Netziv melech” a standing monument made out of an easily eroded material. Salt represents value and wealth, it is used to preserve food, it has medicinal qualities, the beautiful crystals reflect light, it speaks to us of the sea and of tears. Salt is the symbol of the covenant (see Lev 2:13, according to Talmud salt from Sodom was burned in temple ritual (Ker 6a) and it is present to this day on the Kiddush table alongside the challah as an echo of that ritual. Lot’s wife escapes the fate of the rest of her family, she is preserved at one with her environment before the descent into degradation that follows.

The younger daughters of Lot do not escape. Bereft of their mother and older sisters, left alone in the mountains with the weak old man who is their father, fearing the world has ended – theirs is a sorry plight.  They have grown up in an emotionally abusive family; their father cared for the superficial success he could enjoy living in his adopted city, working out his own damage of three times losing his own father figures, he did not himself seem to know how to be a good husband or father. He had already offered these daughters for rape by the baying crowd seemingly in the bizarre belief that this was the action of a good host. He must have known the nature of the city he had chosen to make his home and the home of his daughters. His sons in law clearly had no respect for him, he was a weak and laughable figure to them. In a patriarchal world, Lot was no alpha male. Even his name, meaning ‘tightly wrapped’ or ‘covered’, seems to describe a man who draws his blanket around him and hides inside.

With such a father what chance do the girls have?  Yet they seem determined that he will have descendants. Is this a case of Stockholm syndrome whereby the captive will do anything to support and empathise with their captor? Are they actually fearing more for themselves than for their father, whom they describe as old – possibly near to death – and they may be left without any male relative to support and defend them? Will a son born from incest be better than no man at all? Have they believed the story of his superficial success, and refused to look deeper? It is interesting that his wife actually looks mei’acharav – from behind/after him rather than behind her – she is not looking at the city she is fleeing, but instead maybe she is really seeing who her companion in the escape really is and crystallising in horror about both the past and the future, fixing in an eternal present.

The daughters of Lot had not known any man. Their choice to get their father drunk in order to sleep with them is curious – did they think he would refuse them? Did they think he would be easier to control if he was so stupefied he would remember nothing about what happened?  Is it believable that they would choose the actions described in bible, or is it possible that bible is subtly shifting responsibility, making what can only be described as incestuous rape the fault of the young women involved, rather than the responsibility of Lot himself? We already know that he was ready to hand them over for rape in Sodom, have they internalised their use as sexual objects of no real value otherwise? And is there an ambiguity in the statement that “there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth”? The daughters must surely have seen that Zoar was not destroyed, they must have been able to realise that not everyone had died. Are they saying that they are tainted already simply by their relationship to their father. That no man would want them, coming as they do from a city so wicked and a family so weak? Given that they would be unmarriageable in their society, might they at least preserve some kind of descendant who might even remedy their faultlines in some way? Why the use of the word ‘seed’ rather than children? Is this an early intimation of the messianic line which will eventually derive from Ruth the Moabite woman?

The problem with Lot – damaged from childhood, whose name implies that he is tightly wrapped up and thus insensible to the realities of the outside world, who argues over money with his patron and uncle Abraham, who chooses to live among wicked people and be honoured in their society, who does not value his wife or children – the problem with Lot is he is, from the point of view of the bible, family. Somehow the narrative shifts the blame from him again and again, because of the merit of Abraham. He is the progenitor of two of the tribes most hostile to the Israelites, the incest resonant in their names – Moav (from my father) ben Ammi (son of my people). He has distorted the narrative horribly. But bible and midrash choose instead to focus on the faults of his wife who, all unknowing, looks backwards (and midrash ascribes a whole series of unpleasant attributes to her in order to explain her punishment), and to ascribe to his young daughters the rapists charge that they were complicit, that they wanted it, that the drink removes all culpability. It is almost as though the text continues to abuse the daughters, to blame them, to disappear them into only being the objects of sexual exploitation.

There is no more mention of Lot after this episode. He disappears into history drunk, insensible, incestuous, irrelevant. There is no more mention of his daughters – they have served their purpose and they were always irrelevant from the point of view of the narrative.

The individuals have gone, but the systemic abuse goes on. Weak men who crave status and who use their families to win what they want. Superficial signs of wealth with no respect underlying it. Blaming the victims rather than challenging the abusers. Narratives that shift blame, horror hiding in plain sight, the emergence of different groups determined to assert themselves against others.

Lot is the ultimate cautionary tale – of what we could become if we don’t pay attention, if we don’t try to follow the path of Abraham, if we don’t challenge what we see is wrong. And if we allow Lot to sit in the gates, to achieve status in our society, then we risk being his victims, just as surely as his wife and daughters were.

Sarah: blinded by her outward appearance we miss the person within

Deception and beauty, the bible is fascinated by the interaction of the two.

When Avram, having left Canaan because of the famine, arrived in Egypt he feared that the beauty of his wife Sarai would mean that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take her for themselves, and so he asks her to lie, to say that she is his sister “that it will be well with me for your sake, and so my soul may live because of you”. And certainly his fear is grounded, because the Egyptians see Sarai’s exceptional beauty,“ki yafah hi me’od”. The princes of Pharaoh see her, sing her praises to him, and she is taken into Pharaoh’s house. Pharoah gives a great deal of wealth to Abram as dowry, but God intervenes, plagues Pharaoh and his house on account of Sarai, until Pharaoh understands that he has taken Avram’s wife and arranges for her to go back to him, and for Avram and Sarai to go on their way with their accumulated gains.

This is the first of three wife-sister deception narratives in Genesis, the others being with Sarah and Abimelech and with Rebecca and Abimelech.  The repeated retelling seems to imply that these are not historical reportage, but a motif to give us a deeper understanding of our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Any number of questions emerge from even a cursory reading of this text. We already know that Avram married Sarai (Gen 11:29) yet surprisingly her ancestry is not given, while that of Milcah, who married Nahor Abram’s brother is given her full background. Immediately we are told that Sarai is barren, she had no child – an enormous economic disbenefit for any wife in that society and that she went with her father in Law Terach, with her husband and with Lot the son of Abram’s dead brother, from Ur Kasdim towards Canaan, leaving behind Nahor and Milcah. (Gen 11:29-31)

Sarai’s great beauty is only told to us in the following chapter – which seem surprising if it were really so extraordinary. Her passivity – travelling with the family including the heir apparent Lot – leaving Ur Kasdim to go to Canaan but settling in Haran in the interim – seems to be the expected role of women, yet clearly the family did well, making great wealth, and the plural form is used – “all the wealth THEY had gathered, and the souls THEY had made” from which the midrash develops the idea of Avram and Sarai as the great models of inclusivity and openness, who between them had converted both men and women to the one God of Judaism.

So maybe Sarai was not so passive, but was a valued working partner in the relationship. And yet, as soon as they come near to Egypt she is prevailed upon not only to lie about her relationship to Avram, but essentially to become adulterous in order both to protect his life and increase his wealth.  She does not speak, she does not seem to object, and while one can see what is in the deal for Avram it is not so clear what is in it for her – except maybe that as a widow captured after her husband’s death she may be even more unprotected and powerless than as the sister of a living and wealthy man.

She doesn’t even seem to speak to Pharaoh, who, plagued by God, realises all by himself that the cause of his troubles is that he has taken the wife of another man into his household. Clearly at the beginning if she has bought Avram’s reasoning that this will save his life it is important that she keep the secret, but what about later when it is obvious that something is deeply wrong?  She is returned, as passive as ever, into the safekeeping of Avram her husband, and they are sent on their way, greatly enriched by the whole adventure.

Yet this story, with its overtones of sexual trafficking for gain cannot be left here – there is the repeated retelling with some alterations with a different king Abimelech, and then later with her daughter in law Rebecca and Abimelech. And there is the persistent motif of great beauty and deception.

Others are described in bible in almost the same words as having extraordinary beauty, the most prominent being Sarah’s daughter in law Rebecca, described as being tovat mar’eh me’od (24:16 and 26:7), Rebecca’s daughter in law Rachel about whom we hear “V’einei Leah rakot; v’Rachel hay’ta y’fat to’ar, vi’fat mareh” – The eyes of Leah were soft/ weak,  and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance. (Gen 29:17, and her older son Joseph who is “y’fei to’ar vi’fei mar’eh” (Gen 39:6)

Three matriarchs and the favoured son Joseph all described in bible in terms of their exceptional beauty. And all of them recorded in bible as deceiving in ways that change the narrative profoundly. Sarah and Rebecca are the objects of the their husband’s deception in the wife-sister narratives, but Rebecca goes on to deceive her blind husband in order to gain the major blessing for her favourite son Jacob, when he intends and expects to give it to Esau.

Rachel deceives her father and husband about having taken the household gods when they left Haran, an act that will bring about her early death. And her elder son Joseph, also described as beautiful, deceives his brothers who come to buy food, putting them through a horrible ordeal as they contemplated their father’s devastated reactions.

It is strange that on the whole we don’t know much about the physical appearance of the main characters in the narrative. What does Avram look like? We are not told. Likewise Isaac and Jacob, though we are aware of the physicality of Ishmael and Esau who are earthy,  athletic and skilful hunters.

It seems that only ‘outsiders’ and women are worthy of comment about their appearance. And then, as now, such comment serves to objectify, to limit in some way, to categorise. We no longer see the person, nor do we see their abilities or potential, we see the colour, the gender, the beauty (or lack of) and we make a judgement.

Later on in the narrative we will be able to see Sarah a little better – we will see her as the strong and independently minded woman trying to give her husband his much desired heir, however problematic that intervention is. We will see her as the woman who is visited by God, who laughs on hearing God’s voice telling her and her husband that she too will bear a child, and who speaks directly to God’s challenge to her, albeit to dissemble rather than be upfront with her views. We will see her as the mother determined to protect her child even if it means asking her husband to disown his older child – and ensuring that he does. We will see that her name is changed by God along with that of her husband. We will see that she lives away from her husband after the Akedah until her death when he has to travel to organise her funeral.

Sarah is the matriarch to match Abraham’s role – the promise of the heir who would receive God’s blessing is clearly as much to her as to him – it is Isaac son of Sarah who will inherit the blessing and take on the chain of tradition. She saves Abraham’s life at least twice, she helps him to increase his wealth, she directs the family life.

What is her beauty? The deception of Sarah’s beauty seems to be not so much what she does, but that it hides the strong and independent character within, the personal connection with God that she develops, the innovative and formative life that she lives. Her antecedents are shrouded in mystery, unlike Abraham’s, but their descendants are as much hers as his.

Proverbs tells us “charm deceives and beauty fades” when describing the perfect woman (Eshet Chayil) (31:30) and we should read the narrative of lech lecha with this in mind – if we only see the outward passivity and the blinding beauty that Abraham fears Pharaoh will see, then we miss what is important about Sarah.

Yet plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Those who only see the outward appearance and the gender will layer on their own perceptions, their own beliefs about what they see, and will miss the gold that lies within.

Parashat Bo: speaking up against injustice is time critical, though many of us wait for too long

Pharaoh is remembered for his certainty that he is the supreme power, for the battle between him and God that he is drawn into, for God’s deliberately manipulating him so as to make sure he keep his resolve in the battle – the famous hardening of his heart.

But along with this absolute dictator, the early stages of the Book of Exodus gives us little hints of people not accepting his power unquestioningly, sometimes with some civil disobedience, sometimes with some actions or remarks that don’t take him on face to face but clearly demonstrate other viewpoints.

So we have the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who choose to fear God over Pharaoh and who do not follow his orders to destroy the male Hebrew babies at birth. We have the female relative of Pharaoh who must certainly know that the baby she is rescuing and keeping alive is supposed to be killed as an enemy of the state. We have the ordinary Egyptians who are forced to dig around the Nile for fresh water after it has been turned into blood and Pharaoh has returned to his Palace- a picture the bible gives us that surely reflects some of the anger of the people, and finally in chapter 8 with the arrival of the fourth plague, that of the lice, we have the magicians who give voice to their frustration: And the magicians did so with their secret arts to bring forth lice, but they could not; and there were lice upon man, and upon beast.  Then the magicians said to Pharaoh: ‘This is the finger of God’; but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he listened not to them; as the Eternal had spoken.” (8:14-15)

A little while later we get yet another insight into the people’s refusal to follow Pharaoh’s dictatorial stubbornness – the plague of hail is announced 24 hours earlier when Moses says “Behold, tomorrow about this time I will cause it to rain a very grievous hail, such as has not been in Egypt since the day it was founded even until now.  Now therefore send, hasten in your cattle and all that you have in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.’  He that feared the word of the Eternal among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses; and he that regarded not the word of the Eternal left his servants and his cattle in the field.(Exodus 9:18-21). The same description that applied to the midwives – Yirat Adonai, the fear or reverence or awe of God – is now applied to the ordinary Egyptians, some of whom are clearly transferring their feelings from Pharaoh to God.

And now here, at the beginning of the sidra Bo, after seven terrible plagues, they are able to challenge Pharaoh directly. As Moses brings the warning of the eighth plague, the bible records that the servants of Pharaoh say to him   “How long shall this man be a snare unto us? let the men go, that they may serve the Eternal their God, do you not understand yet that Egypt is destroyed?” (Exodus 10:7)

At the very beginning of the story the disobedience is shown by the families who stand to lose a child to Pharaoh’s decree (in particular the family of Moses) and also by the brave women who are themselves described as Yirei Adonai – people who revere God. But when challenged of course they do not say so, instead they hide behind a stereotype of the foreign Hebrew women who, they say, are not like Egyptian women – with the implication that they are somehow less human than the Egyptian women. Only one person with no obvious motive is prepared to disobey the Pharaoh, and that is his unnamed female relative.

The magicians only mutter their disobedience when they are unable to replicate the plagues with their own enchantments. Almost as if to save themselves they attribute the more powerful magic to a more powerful magician. And the ordinary Egyptians who are described as Yirei Adonai become so only in order to protect their material goods. No one actually took on the Pharaoh until after the seventh plague, when Egypt is already, in their words, destroyed.  Finally there are courtiers and advisors who are willing to put their heads above the parapet and challenge Pharaoh. Finally the people who have been in a position of some kind of power are able to dare to use it. It is, sadly, too late though for many Egyptians and others who live in the land, and by now Pharaoh is unstoppable – the complete destruction of the place is assured. They have found the courage to speak up too late.

There is a lesson for us in this – a lesson that Pastor Martin Niemoller most famously gave expression to:

“First they came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time there was no one left to speak up.”