There’s something we don’t talk about enough when we tell the PassoverPassover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc). story, and that is civil disobedience—in particular, the civil disobedience of five women who enabled MosesThe quintessential Jewish leader who spoke face to face with God, unlike any other prophet, and who freed the people from Egypt, led them through the desert for forty years, and received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. His Hebrew name is Moshe. to survive his infancy.
It began when Pharaoh ordered the midwives of the Hebrew slaves to murder all the male Jewish babies they delivered. The midwives, led by ShifraShifra is one of the two Hebrew midwives mentioned in Exodus 1 who refuses Pharaoh's orders to kill the boy children, instead enabling them to live. She, along with her partner Puah, is instrumental in beginning the process leading to the Exodus. Shifra is often identified as Jochebed, Moses' mother. and PuahPuah, like Shifra, is one of the Hebrew midwives mentioned in Exodus 1 who defies Pharaoh's orders to kill the boy babies. This first act of defiance was instrumental in leading to the Israelite exodus from Egypt. Puah is often identified in the midrash with Miriam, Moses' older sister., refused to do it. When summoned by Pharaoh to explain their apparent insubordination, Shifra and Puah cleverly appealed to his racism. They told Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are like animals, giving birth too quickly for the midwives to arrive in time to intervene. With this defiant act of conscience, Shifra and Puah didn’t know that they were planting the seeds for a chain of events that would defeat the mightiest empire on earth and free a people from centuries of slavery.
As we know, next Pharaoh ordered that all newborn Hebrew boys be taken from their parents and drowned in the Nile. When baby Moses is born, his mother, Yokheved, hides him for three months. But then, unable to keep his existence secret any longer, she commits the second act of civil disobedience recorded in Exodus. Working with her daughter, MiriamMiriam is the sister of Moses and Aaron. As Moses' and Aaron's sister she, according to midrash, prophesies Moses' role and helps secure it by watching over the young baby, seeing to it that Pharaoh's daughter takes him and that the baby is returned to his mother for nursing. During the Israelites' trek through the desert, a magical well given on her behalf travels with the Israelites, providing water, healing, and sustenance., she places Moses in a water-tight basket and sets the baby adrift on the Nile.
The basket floats past Pharaoh’s palace. There, Pharaoh’s daughter sees the basket. As the TorahThe Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. describes the moment: “And she opened it, and saw the child; and look—a boy crying. And she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.’” Her compassion leads her to commit the third act of civil disobedience in the Exodus story. The daughter of Pharaoh himself keeps the child alive.
As Reverend John Bell writes, “We discover that [Moses] owes a lot to women. He would not be alive had five women not defied male authority to allow him to exist. The women are two midwives, his mother, his sister and Pharaoh’s daughter.” May this Passover season be illuminated by the compassion and courage of these women, now and always.
 Exod 2:6, from Everett Fox’s translation in The Five Books of Moses: The Schocken Bible, Volume 1, A New English Translation with Commentary and Notes. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.
 Bell, Rev. John. “Moses.” No pages. Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/history/moses_1.shtml#h5.
Rabbi Maurice Harris is a writer and teacher living in Eugene, Oregon. This entry was based on portions of his new book, Moses: A Stranger among Us, from Wipf and Stock Publishers. For a deeper look into the book, click here.