From Rabbi Avi Strausberg, Hadar Institute
In the Haggadah, we are told that each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we ourselves came out of Egypt. One of the central ways in which we fulfil this obligation is through the telling and retelling of the story of our Exodus that is at the core of the Haggadah. Pesah is a time in which we come together to collectively shape our narrative and, through this retelling, locate ourselves in this great chain of history. The stories that we tell about and for ourselves reveal who we are and also shape it. In capturing this dynamic, Director Shekhar Kapur, shared this helpful phrasing in his TedTalk “We Are The Stories We Tell Ourselves”:
“A story is our—all of us—we are the stories we tell ourselves. In this universe, and this existence, where we live with this duality of whether we exist or not and who are we, the stories we tell ourselves are the stories that define the potentialities of our existence. We are the stories we tell ourselves.”
Our stories provide the framework in which we place ourselves, both to inspire us to live up to them but also to limit us to live within them. So, on this holiday of telling our most central story of the Exodus, it is worth paying attention: When we tell our stories on Pesah, what are we saying about ourselves? What does it reveal about who we are as a people?
The Haggadah, at its core, is a collection of stories about people telling stories about our Exodus from Egypt. And, yet, when we tell our story, the central narrative of the Jewish people, women neither appear as storytellers, nor are they present as the subjects of our stories. They are completely absent. As Kapur explains, “A person without a story does not exist… I exist because there are stories, and if there are no stories, we don’t exist.” If we are the stories that we tell, the narratives that we use to define our existence, then our haggadot tell a story in which women do not exist, their presence and contributions unseen and unimportant.
We can’t let that be the narrative. If we value women, we have to include their voices, their stories, in our narrative of the Exodus from Egypt. While absent from the Haggadah, women feature prominently both in the Torah and rabbinic accounts of the stories of the Exodus. In the Torah, it is thanks to the bravery of Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, and his sister, Miriam, that Moshe even lives to see the day when he can become the leader of the Jewish people. It is Pharaoh’s daughter, acting in direct defiance to her own father’s command, who saves a Jewish baby abandoned in the Nile. It is the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who, despite Pharaoh’s decree to kill all of the male newborns, ensure that the children live and grow strong. So, what happened to all of the women? How come the stories of Miriam and Yocheved, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the midwives Shifrah and Puah, don’t make into the Haggadah? And, what can we do about at it our seders today?
The first and one of the most challenging is that we must notice the absence of these female voices. This is one of the biggest challenges. It’s so easy to read through the Haggadah year after year, or any Jewish text for that matter, without realizing that these texts are often devoid of female actors and voices. Often, only one who is looking for their presence notices that they are absent Only once we realize this can we begin to do something about it. Then, we have to tell their stories. One of my favorite stories about women’s roles in the Exodus comes from the pages of Massekhet Sotah.
תלמוד בבלי סוטה יא:
דרש רב עוירא: בשכר נשים צדקניות שהיו באותו הדור נגאלו ישראל ממצרים.
Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b
Rav Avira teaches, “In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.”
Let’s just pause there. While women may be absent from the pages of our Haggadah, here is Rav Avira giving full credit to women for the redemption of the entire Jewish people of that generation. What was it they did that merited God’s saving hand in Egypt? Rav Avira explains in the continuation of the passage that, at that time, the men, backs broken from oppressive labor, would come home defeated and tired. One can imagine that in situations of such desperation, the focus would be on surviving in the now rather than looking to producing future generations. But, the women were able to look toward the future. They’d go to the river and come away with pots filled with water and fish. They’d bathe their husbands, rub them with oils, feed them the fish, and ultimately through their loving, rejuvenating actions, these couples would come to have sex, and the women would become pregnant. Once pregnant, these strong women would continue to take matters into their own hands. When it came time to give birth, they would give birth under the apple tree, and the Holy One would join them, sending a midwife to care for the newborn. These babies were resilient like their parents. When the Egyptians would come for them, a miracle would occur, the earth would absorb them, holding them safe until the threat had passed. They would then emerge from the ground, like grass of the field. As they grew, they would return home, like flocks of sheep, healthy, numerous, and whole.
Rav Avira’s midrashic reading not only credits the women with the saving of an entire generation but portrays them as resilient, strong, and independent. They are able to find hope and take action in a moment when perhaps others are unable. They are caregivers, they are midwives, they are incredibly powerful actors and agents in their own stories of redemption. Just as Miriam and Yocheved ensure Moshe’s survival, seeing a way past the immediate danger posed by Pharoah, so too these women’s actions result in the births of an entire generations that emerge from the ground, like the grass of the fields. Just as Shifrah and Pu’ah defy Pharoah’s order and bring forth life with their own hands, so too these women tend to their own births under the apple tree.
All of this—this survival of a next generation, this transmission of strength, resiliency, and hope—thanks to the women who were able to see past their dire situation and look to a better future. The pages of the Talmud, the stories in our rabbinic texts, are filled with narratives that highlight the strength, resiliency, and saving grace of women; this teaching of Rav Avira is only one example of many. The editors of the Haggadah may not have seen fit to include these stories, so it’s on us to give these women their proper place in the Pesah story.
Dr. Judith Plaskow writes, “The need for a feminist Judaism begins with hearing silence. It begins with noting the absence of women’s history and experiences as shaping forces in the Jewish tradition.” We have to take notice of the silence of women in the chosen narrative recorded in our Haggadah. We must note that their voices have been excluded, their contributions ignored. Then, we have to do just a little bit of digging to uncover the richness of the contributions of women as described both in Torah and rabbinic midrash. Let’s bring these stories, these voices, to our Pesah tables.
Pesah is a time of creativity and exploration. On one hand, we have the fixed text of the traditional Haggadah that we read year after year; and on the other hand, there are so many different haggadot available that allow us to highlight different parts of the Pesah story. If you don’t find one that you like, make your own that asks the questions you want to be asking. Place oranges on your Seder plate or introduce a tea bag that speaks to the strength of the women in Egypt. Raise a glass to Miriam as your raise your glass to Elijah and celebrate her role in saving Moshe and her ability to lead the people in song. Most importantly, place women back in the story where they belong as storytellers and as agents of their fate. This year, as you read the midrashic interpretations at the heart of the Haggadah about our descent into Egypt and God’s saving hand, read alongside them classic midrashim like that of Rav Avira that feature the roles of women or modern midrashim written by female scholars.
If we are the stories that we tell, what kind of people do we want to be?
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