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Women's Leadership in Parashat Shemot

01/16/2020 08:37:51 AM


Melinda Kassen

Parashat Shemot opens with Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites because they are becoming too numerous. When the brave and wily midwives refuse Pharaoh’s command to kill all male Hebrew babies, he tells Egyptians to throw these babies into the Nile instead. Moses’ mom does that herself and Pharaoh’s daughter picks up his basket and raises him as her own in the palace. Moses leaves the Palace one day and comes across an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. Moses kills the Egyptian and then flees into the desert. He comes across two sister shepherdesses being harassed at their local well and stands up for them. He marries one of them, staying to become his new father-in-law’s shepherd. Out in the fields one day, God appears to him in a burning bush and directs him to tell Pharaoh to “let my people go.” Because of his speech impediment, Moses enlists Aaron to take the message to Pharaoh. Pharaoh, of course, refuses. Moses is angry and challenges God because the redemption didn’t happen, and God promises it will, soon.





This is a great portion to talk about leadership. Moses grew up in a palace. He wasn’t raised Jewish, didn’t suffer the life of a slave, never lived in Jewish community. So it’s no surprise he marries a non-Jew. It’s a little more of a surprise that he becomes a vigilante killer on the lam the moment he leaves his bubble of privilege. At the end of the parashat, when Moses is embarrassed before the community leaders to whom he promised freedom because that freedom doesn’t come immediately, he complains, to God. 

So Moses could be mistaken for an entitled, whiny rich kid, with a temper. But he’s obviously more than that, enough more that God chooses him to spend over 40 years leading the Jewish people to freedom. One Rabbi (Evan Moffic) lists 20 attributes. I think this parashah highlights two: a passion for justice and a willingness to act. When Moses sees a slave beaten, he tilts – but he acts. He intervenes. When he sees the women harassed at the well, he tilts - & then acts. Again he intervenes. When God asks him, a stuttering outlaw who’s not a member of the community, to go make an audacious ask of the most powerful person in the world on behalf of a community he barely knows, he does push back for a second, but then goes for it. In a smart way – roping in Aaron to be his voice, and approaching the community leaders first to get them on board.

But there’s another story – or set of stories – in this parashat about leadership, one that may be more relevant to us. I’m of course referring to the leadership of the women in this parashat. I’d thought about the midwives before; they may be the first example we read of civil disobedience. I’d thought about Pharaoh’s daughter before, rescuing and raising an Israelite under her father’s nose. But Rabbi Jonathan Sacks goes further – he points to Moses’ mom putting her child in a basket in the river – at once drawing a line against mindlessly following authority – while also demonstrating amazing faith that it will turn out alright. There’s Moses’ sister Miriam, who follows Moses’ basket and convinces Pharaoh’s daughter to take him. And much later in the story, there’s Moses’ wife, who circumcises their son when Moses won’t.  

Each of these women understands where and how to draw a line. Each demonstrates leadership through her actions. These women question authority and bend their realities towards justice. None of them starts out, or ends up as a powerful person, in a position of leadership. Yet they each act, they each do the right thing even though it could be costly to themselves. In these acts, they each model leadership. 

So I think they teach us something maybe more important and certainly more relevant for us that Moses’ leadership. None of us is going to be a Moses – most of us will not be leaders of our people. But we can all model acts of courage. We can all stand up to authority. We must all figure out how to draw the lines well and demand justice.




Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784