Hidden Heroes of Redemption

The not-so-well-known heroes of the Passover narrative can continue to inspire us.

In reward for the righteous women of that generation, Israel were redeemed from Egypt. Babylonian Talmud, Sotah

Who are our Jewish heroes? The holidays of Passover and Purim stimulate discussion of heroism as we seek to let the lessons inspire our actions. There are more heroes than you can imagine!

Often the only hero spoken about with Passover is Moses — and he was an amazing hero! Yet the opening chapters of the Exodus story tell another story that is too often overlooked — a series of heroines who are key partners in bringing our redemption — without whom there would not have been a Moses. As you prepare for Passover, sharing their stories can be a beautiful part of your Seder.

Who are these women? In his Haggadah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes a chapter about them upon which I will base this column (pp. 93–100).

Misés e Jocabed (Moses and Jochebed) by Pedro Américo, 1884
Misés e Jocabed (Moses and Jochebed) by Pedro Américo, 1884

First is Jocheved, Moses’s mother. Imagine the courage necessary to have a child once the decree has been issued that “every Jewish boy that is born shall be thrown into the Nile.” To have a child at a time of despair is the supreme act of hope. While we know little about her, we do learn of her resourcefulness: She hides Moses for three months, and then she prepares a basket and sets him afloat on the Nile, hoping (with little chance of success) that he will be noticed and saved. Her determination, resourcefulness, and courage brought Moses into the world.

The next heroine is Miriam, Moses’s elder sister. Miriam kept watch over Moses as the ark floated down the river. She approached Pharaoh’s daughter with the suggestion that he be nursed among his own people. Miriam’s fearlessness, initiative, and presence of mind ensure Moses’s survival. Later as a prophetess she leads us in celebrating our redemption.

The third figure is Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescued Moses, knowing that he was a Hebrew child and that to rescue him was to defy her father’s policy. In the book Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Sacks writes:

She is one of the most unexpected heroes of the Hebrew Bible. Without her, Moses might not have lived. The whole story of Exodus would have been different. Yet she was not an Israelite. She had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by her courage. Yet she seems to have had no doubt, experienced no misgivings, made no hesitation. If it was Pharaoh who afflicted the children of Israel, it was another member of his own family who saved the decisive vestige of hope: Pharaoh’s daughter.

Pharaoh’s daughter teaches us that courage transcends nationality and that redemption truly comes from unexpected places.

Two other heroines are the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who frustrated Pharaoh’s first attempt at genocide. Told to kill the male Israelite children at birth, they “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” Summoned and accused of disobedience, they outwitted Pharaoh by claiming that the Hebrew women “are vigorous and give birth before we arrive”. They escaped punishment and saved lives. This is the first recorded instance of civil disobedience and where authority is defied because of a moral imperative. Shifrah and Puah teach us that saving life transcends fear and that morality is more important than political authority.

Like Esther, who finds the courage to approach King Ahasueros in order to save her people, these women deserve to be lifted up, celebrated, and emulated as we celebrate the holidays of Purim and Passover. Yocheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Shifra, Puah, Esther, and others had courage and conscience. They refused to be defeated by circumstance and are heroes of redemption who continue to inspire.