In the merit of the righteous women who were in that generation, [the children of] Israel were redeemed from Egypt. (B. Talmud Sotah 11b)
This midrashic statement gets a lot of press. Many people are intrigued by the idea that women played a central role in such a massively significant event as the exodus from Egypt, and by the fact that Rabbinic tradition saw fit to emphasize their contribution.
But what is it that the women of that generation did?
The story I always heard (and everyone I’ve asked tells it the same way) begins with the Jewish men in Egypt giving up on having children. Physically and/or emotionally drained from the hard labor and the terrible decrees, such as the one about killing newborn Jewish baby boys, they simply weren’t interested in bringing children into the world. It was the women, we are told, who went out to their husbands in the fields when their husbands wouldn’t come to them, who had the faith necessary to see a future beyond their current suffering, who aroused their husbands’ interest and succeeded in bearing children to perpetuate the nation.
There’s a lot to say about this story – but I tend to think that whatever we say has to begin with the texts. And when we read the texts, it turns out the details might not be quite as so often retold.
That passage in Sotah 11b continues, “When [the women] would go to draw water, G-d would arrange small fish for them in their pitchers, and they would draw half water and half fish,” and goes on to describe how they would heat the water and cook the fish, bringing both to their husbands to wash and feed them – after which they would enjoy some intimate time together in secluded areas of the fields.
What’s missing from this text – and virtually all midrashic texts I’ve found – is any mention of the men’s unwillingness to have children, or the women’s faith and intent to counter that despair.
(Compare this to the account in Sotah 12a of a man and woman who are explicitly described as having debated whether it was worth having children. Certainly, there might be a connection between the two traditions – but it is striking that these details are missing from the context of the statement about the “righteous women.”)
In fact, according to the parallel account in Shemot Rabbah 1:12, the motivation of bringing children into the world actually belongs to G-d. (Note that the first action is His, too: all the women did was go draw water as usual; He started the ball rolling by putting fish in their water.) This version places the entire account of the “righteous women” in the context of a battle being fought on a grand stage, between Pharaoh – who arranged for the men to sleep in the fields where they worked, with the express purpose of keeping them from their wives and preventing procreation – and G-d, Who responded to Pharaoh’s schemes with excuse me?! “I said to Avraham, their father, that I would increase his children like the stars… and you make yourselves wise about them that they shouldn’t increase? We’ll see whose word stands!” The midrash then points out that indeed, as the Egyptians afflicted the Jews, the Jews continued to increase – and then, “In the merit of the righteous women…”
So, we found an explicit decision to prevent procreation among the Jews – but it’s Pharaoh, not the Jewish men, who made that decision. And we found the resolve to counter that plan and ensure that Jewish babies would be born – but it’s G-d, not the Jewish women, Who is reported to have had that intent. Apparently, He arranged for those fish to offer the women a nudge to go to their husbands and ultimately bring children into the world. So, G-d was righteous; G-d ensured the future of the Jewish people!
What did the women do?
Maybe their righteousness lies in their response when offered that little nudge, and maybe it’s not so much about having the faith to bring children into the world for a future that looked hopeless, but about finding the strength – and faith – to work towards an impossible relationship in a present that felt hopeless.
When Pharaoh established the rule that the men would have to sleep in the fields, the midrash leaves the men silent. They accepted it. Shame, have to sleep at work; guess I won’t get to see my wife! It was the women who remained on the alert for solutions, seeing even something as simple as catching a fish while drawing water as an opportunity to build a special moment of love and togetherness.
After all, there are other ways they could have reacted to the fish. They could have thrown the fish back; “I just wanted water; why is there stuff in it?” They could have said, “Yum, fish!” and cooked it for themselves and perhaps whatever children they did have at home. Shame, husband is off at work; guess he won’t get any. But instead, they looked beyond the situation inflicted upon them, and thought beyond themselves. They saw the possibility of something special moment in the midst of a lifetime of suffering and separation, and put in effort towards that opportunity. They took what G-d offered them and directed it towards creating something positive, right then and there.
(Yet another midrashic text (Bamidbar Rabbah 9:14) points out that despite being surrounded by a culture Rabbinic literature describes as permeated with sexual immorality, and despite all the practical and emotional factors that could have driven a wedge between them and their husbands, they didn’t look elsewhere while their husbands were away in the fields, but looked for ways to be together and stay strong.)
Why did the women, in particular, have this perspective when the men didn’t? I don’t know. Some might see various gender stereotypes in this account, but we might also remember that regardless of any innate differences between men and women, in this midrashic account, they were doing different things. Maybe the men, confined as they were to the fields, really didn’t have much opportunity to be “nudged” to act. Maybe the fact that the men were the ones (according to this tradition) who were being worked to the bone meant that yes, they were too fatigued for any hope, to find any possibility of good in the present or the future. Who could see the future, when there was straw right there to mix, endless bundles of it? Who could even see past the next time they would get to sleep?
Sometimes being caught up in the moment limits our ability to see possibilities in and beyond the moment, and it takes someone outside to offer a different perspective. It’s not easy, on either side: it can be annoying to be offered optimism when we don’t feel optimistic, and it can be a real challenge to persuade someone entrenched in despair to see things differently.
And maybe that’s another piece of the strength of these women: not only that they saw the potential for something good, but that they were able to formulate a strategy to bring their husbands around to see it too, whether for the sake of future generations or just for their own stolen moment.
By leaving out any reference to the intent of either the men or the women, the midrash allows us to understand the women’s righteousness within the context of those little moments shared by two people without immediate thought for the battles on the grand stage. And the fact that their efforts did perpetuate the Jewish people reminds us that whether we realize it or not, our small acts can be the key to redemptive greatness on a much larger scale.