The Women of Egypt – In Those Days and in Ours

In the merit of righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah, 11b:4)

Sitting in front of the keyboard, I want to write you some thoughts on the current, challenging situation, but it’s not an easy task. These are tough, complicated times. The COVID-19 crisis requires us to enlist all our strength, faith, and resilience and the question is how can we achieve this in real-time, in the midst of so much fear, despair, and anxiety?

As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, this is a particularly difficult time for me, since the situation reminds me of my late father who was a survivor of Transnistria. Throughout his life he told us how he and his parents were saved by the Almighty and by “händewaschen” (German for handwashing) – what was almost an obsession with hygiene rules during the Holocaust. Händewaschen was not only a call to action but an entire philosophy of life, whose full force and scope can perhaps only be understood by members of the second generation who experienced it. We still bear the marks, and at this time of global crisis, they worsen and weigh heavily on our soul. So much fear and despair surrounds us, which is only natural, but my hope is that I can rally you around the banner to generate hope and freedom, the central message of Pesach!

Over its long history, the Jewish people have undergone countless crises and upheavals. One of them was the period of bondage in Egypt. Pharaoh – the brutal King of Egypt – harassed the Children of Israel with hard labor, trying tirelessly to break them physically and mentally. Survival in Egypt seemed almost impossible. And, yet during the era of enslavement, the Torah says, “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly… and the land was filled with them. ” (Exodus 1:7) A baby boom! How did it happen? How was it possible that during such a harrowing time so many children were born? The secret of that redemption is that women initiated and made it possible. Perhaps only women can “organize” such an amazing scenario!

The Torah says that the Jewish men were worn out by the hard labor the Egyptians imposed upon them – while they toiled, the Egyptians assailed them with blows, humiliations, and curses. In fact, their spirit and soul were broken .. hardly a scrap of hope remained. Yet, the Midrash tells us that redemption came from that terrible situation… through the foresight of the women. Midrash Tanchuma, 9, tells what actually happened: When their husbands were tired from the hard work, the women used to go and bring them food and drink, and feed them. Each woman held the mirror so she could see herself with her husband in the mirror and they said to their husbands “I’m more beautiful than you”. They brought their husbands to lust, became pregnant and gave birth…

When Pharaoh saw that, he prohibited the Jewish slaves from returning to their homes, so that no Jewish children would be born. In response to Pharaoh’s decree, their wives launched subversive actions against the tyrannical regime. Instead of waiting for their husbands to come home like broken fragments, their resourcefulness breathed new life into the men. In bondage, they boldly chose freedom. The women set off to meet their husbands in the fields – they were beautiful, splendid, after adorning themselves in their mirrors.

Fields are spaces of freedom – where faith is revealed. Ruth and Boaz met in the fields and during the month of Elul, “the King is in the field” … The Israelite women go out into the field, from a place of bondage and darkness, and they illuminate the world, making it a place of freedom! The women’s insistence, their persuasive actions, convinced their husbands to fulfill the commandments of “go forth and multiply” enabling fresh new hope for creating a new generation. It is unparalleled greatness to create romance and Eros in a situation when their humanity was almost lost. Its origins are rooted deep within female personal freedom, and it is a profound expression of resilience. The copper mirrors were transformed from previously reflecting only the seemingly egoistic “self,” the physical side of the women situated in the domestic sphere  –  after the couples’ encounter in a moonlit field ­– now to reflect the women’s partners together with them.

The personal lens has widened and allowed the husband to enter the intimate space. The women perform a proactive resuscitation act within their shattered husbands; they create a new future and continue the chain of the Jewish People. The bronze mirrors constitute a space of liberation from the narrow, egoistic self towards new spaces of freedom, power and resilience. Those inspiring women carried out active resistance and subversive endeavors to Pharaoh’s regime, out of freedom of thought and action. The mirror is transformed from something material into something spiritual, in an act of love that transcends the spirit …. The women “diminish” themselves to let men to enter the space of their mirror, transforming struggling “human fragments” into whole humans. They breathe life into the men, and create new life together with them: this is my interpretation of the words “Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively” (Exodus 1:19). There is a transformational process of transcendence beyond the physical state, to the creation of a world, of new life. What was material becomes spiritual, and that is why God commands Moses to turn the bronze mirrors into a basin at the entrance to the tabernacle, where the priests wash their hands and feet. The priests derive their sanctity from the material, elevate it, and take it onward.

The mirrors imbue both women and men with new strength. The seemingly animalistic sexual  instinct, what Freud calls the “id,” undergoes a transformation of holiness that elevates it to the rank of the “supreme self”. The objective is the continued existence of the People of Israel and bringing redemption closer. Redemption is not a static question that lies in the future; nor does it fall from the sky. It is a transformational dynamic process structured by women who create resilience and salvation. The Israelite women in Egypt realized that a sustainable future must be created for the People of Israel by bringing life into the world. They used a tool of seduction to build personal and national strength – a tool for building a nation and for the work of G-d.

At a later stage, after the Exodus when Moses builds the Tabernacle, the Israelites donate something personal, something they are ready to give up for a higher cause. The women bring their mirrors to the Tabernacle. Contributing them implies giving away a very personal intimate item that they used for themselves, to enhance their couplehood and further G-d’s work. Renouncing the mirrors in order to build the tabernacle is a noble concession. Only women can understand what it means to give up a mirror. The mirrors are a medium of communication, but also constitute a message of boundless dedication to the work of G-d – and to the creation of a world.

But a surprise awaits them: Midrash Tanchuma, (Pekudei, 9) states that: “When Moses saw the mirrors he was angry and told the people ‘take sticks and brake their shins.’ Mirrors, why do we need them? G-d said to Moses, ‘Moses, are you degrading these? These mirrors brought all these legions in Egypt … “. Moses was disgusted and upset by the mirrors, which he viewed as abominations.

The feminist interpretation might be that this is the classic difference between the female conception that builds women’s identity by connecting to a male conception which structures identity separation and differentiation. But to me it seems that, in the context of the present situation, that interpretative trajectory in the context of the present situation dwarfs understanding of the full situation. The essential difference between Moses’ attitude to mirrors and that of women stems from the fact that Moses existed in a sphere that was wholly spiritual; he could not identify the spiritual significance of some aspects of physical existence, and was revolted by them. G-d therefore applies a “pedagogy of resilience” and teaches Moses how the world is constructed, and what is the proper relation between matter and spirit.

While Moses sees the mirrors as possessing potential for mortal impurity, the Almighty lovingly accepts them because he sees their vital power, their potential for holiness, and that the priests should be sanctified through them. According to the Midrash, God explains to Moses that because of these mirrors, women succeeded in creating legions – a new generation of children. The Almighty sees the direct connection between the mirrors, the drive for Eros, and the creation the world. He commands Moses to make out of the mirrors a washbasin that will be placed at the door of the Tabernacle “from which the priests will be sacrificed.” The same mirrors would become the foundation and tool with which the priests would be consecrated before starting their holy work. Only women like the Hebrew women in Egypt could make such a bold decision and execute it in such a sophisticated thorough way, spurred by freedom. In moments of darkness, female resourcefulness and agency takes on unimaginable depth and power. There is a thread of grace that connects Egyptian women and Jewish women throughout the ages.

This special female DNA that is a special mix of loving-kindness, resourcefulness, and courage continued to inspire women during the Inquisition, the Pogroms, during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust when Jewish women married and started families in the DP camps – they named their children after lost loved ones as an act of defiance against Hitler’s genocidal intentions. It also beats in the hearts of contemporary Jewish women. As shuls are closed, let’s turn our homes into our sanctuaries and pray fervently to Hashem to save our loved ones and help us to speedily end this terrible plague. Together with the Almighty, it will help us confront the Corona crisis.

The whole world is appalled and helpless with the outbreak and spread of this epidemic. No one knows where it is leading us … But even in these difficult days, despite the anxiety and fear of the unknown, Jewish women across the world continue to prepare for Passover, to throw out the physical and spiritual leaven and prepare the heart to “welcome the matzoth.” Women, even in these moments of darkness and despair, are preparing the house for the Festival of Freedom, planning what the Seder table will look like, the special holiday atmosphere, the napkins, flowers, even the dress that every woman plans to wear project up an atmosphere of joy for herself and her family – even if for older people they know that they may have to do this in isolation, or without their grandchildren. We, the women, can be the heroes of our generation, who elevate the material, and turn despair into joy. Women who choose at this time not to be enslaved by grief and fear – are celebrating real freedom and liberty.

The decision to choose life – joyfully, hopefully and even at this time when we have to self-isolate from our extended families – derives from profound inner freedom. It expresses resilience and heroism, and it requires inner work, and work on midot, especially the act of liberation.

Let’s decide that, despite the current situation, we will choose to celebrate Passover and make it a joyous holiday. Our hope and spiritual resistance to the forces of sadness that are only natural at a time of despair and fear. Together, let’s create freedom, resilience, hope, and joy and show the world and ourselves that Am Yisrael Chai!

Professor Zehavit Gross, Chairholder, UNESCO Chair  in Education for Human Values, Tolerance Democracy and Peace and the Sal Van Gelder  Center for Holocaust Instruction & Research, School of Education, Bar Ilan University, Israel