Women in the Passover Story

Although women played a dramatic role in the biblical Exodus, they have virtually disappeared from the Haggadah’s version of the Passover story.

Here are two readings about women and the Passover story. The first, “Women in the Passover Haggadah,” includes a reading for your Seder with questions for discussion. The second, “Yocheved’s Lesson,” focuses on what we can learn from Moses’ mother and the other women of the Exodus.

I. Women in the Passover Haggadah By David Arnow

The Passover Haggadah mentions only one woman, Hadassah (aka Esther), and only in a song for the second Seder. This is all the more striking given the critical roles at least five women play in the Exodus story. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s orders to kill the Israelite boys they deliver, while Yocheved, Moses’ mother, Miriam, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter all flout the king’s edicts. It is only during the last generation that contemporary additions to the Seder service have highlighted women’s contributions to the story. Inspired by ancient Midrashim, for instance, the ritual of Miriam’s cup celebrates the life-giving waters of Miriam’s miraculous well that had sustained the Israelites during their wandering in the desert. But Miriam’s cup only begins to fill the void.

Where Have All the Women Gone?

A common answer explains the absence of women as a reflection of the Haggadah’s central theme: responsibility for the Exodus belongs to God rather than to human beings. But a closer look does not support that view. While it certainly considers God the director of history, the Haggadah features a huge cast of male characters, including the ten rabbinic sages (the number of a minyan), Abraham, his brother, Nahor, and their father Terah; Isaac, Jacob and Esau and their uncle, Laban; Aaron and Pharaoh; David and his father, Jesse; Elijah, Haman, Daniel, Moses (once by name and once indirectly), and a few more, depending on which songs you sing.

The Haggadah’s vision of redemption does not exclude human actors--only women. Yet there’s no good theological reason why the Haggadah’s actors should be men alone. The absence of women is better explained by the cultural milieu of its compilers.

There are a number of explanations for the declining public role of women in rabbinic times. One holds that in their early, more revolutionary days, the Pharisees, precursors of the rabbis, were more open to public roles for women, but when they became the “rabbinic establishment,” they adopted the more misogynous views sometimes reflected in the Mishnah.

The absence of women in the Haggadah also reflects the Hellenistic world in which women were consigned to the private, rather than public, domain. The Seder is a perfect illustration of Hellenistic influence on Jewish practice, as it was modeled after the Greek symposium (literally to “drink with”), a banquet to which a learned man would invite colleagues for intellectual discussion over successive glasses of wine. If women were present, they remained invisible.

The traditional Haggadah provides unhappy confirmation of Judith Plaskow’s penetrating observation: “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.” The contemporary Seder need not perpetuate that silence.

Fortunately, the Haggadah also contains the best justification for adding new voices to the Seder when it says: “Whoever elaborates on the story of the Exodus deserves praise.” The beloved rituals involving Elijah were added sometime in the Middle Ages as a response, perhaps, to messianic yearnings in an era of great suffering. Just as the medieval Seder embraced that custom in response to a need, the process can continue today so that Passover, the most popular Jewish ritual, can perpetuate a vision of Jewish history that acknowledges the contributions of women.

The Legend of Serakh bat Asher:

A Reading for Your Seder with Questions for Discussion

The amazing story of Serakh bat Asher, the adopted daughter of Asher, the eighth son of Jacob, would make another wonderful addition to the Seder. According to the Midrash, without Serakh, the Exodus might never have occurred!

A word of background. There are three biblical genealogies listing Serakh. Genesis 46:17 mentions her among those who went down into Egypt. Numbers 26:46 counts her among those who departed. I Chronicles 7:30 lists her as one of Jacob’s descendants. She is the only granddaughter of Jacob ever mentioned. That she is listed among those who went into Egypt as well as among those who left, a period of several hundred years, suggests unusual longevity. Other than her tantalizing presence in these genealogies, Serakh appears nowhere else in the Bible. Midrash fills in the void, and then some. The story below synthesizes material found in Midrashim from the third to fourteenth centuries.
During your Seder, you might want to read the story aloud and discuss the questions that follow.

Joseph’s brothers were jealous because their father Jacob favored him. They hated Joseph and decided to throw him into a pit in the desert to die. They told their father Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. Jacob never stopped mourning for his lost son.

But Joseph survived. Traders pulled Joseph from the pit and sold him. He became a slave in Egypt.

Many years later, when his brothers went down to Egypt to buy food during a famine, they found that Joseph had risen to become Pharaoh’s top advisor. When Jacob’s sons returned from Egypt to tell their father that Joseph was alive and had risen to great power, they were afraid that the depressed and fragile old man would die from shock. Rather than tell him directly, they found Serakh, the adopted daughter of Asher, Jacob’s eighth son. She was wise and skilled at playing the harp and she played a song for Jacob over and over again with these words: “Joseph is in Egypt. There have been born on his knees, Menashe and Ephraim.” (In Hebrew the phrases rhyme: Yosef b’Mitzrayim. Yuldo lo al birkayim, Menashe v’Ephrayim.)

Gradually the words began to penetrate and Jacob’s heart filled with joy. “My daughter,” he said to Serakh. “May death never have power over you, for you revived my spirit.” As a result of Jacob’s wish, Serakh lived a long life. Instead of dying, she became one of the few people taken up to heaven while still alive. Because she never really died, Serakh returned to help her people at critical moments over the ages.

Serakh went down to Egypt with Jacob’s family. Eventually, a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. He enslaved the Israelites. Hundreds of years later, Moses came to liberate them, but the Israelites did not believe that God had chosen him to lead them out of Egypt. At the burning bush, God told Moses what to tell the Israelites in order to convince them. “Tell them that I, God, have surely remembered you, pakod pakad’ti…” The people heard these words and saw the special signs God had given Moses. But they still refused to believe him. Only Serakh could convince the Israelites that Moses was indeed God’s chosen leader.

Long before, God had told Jacob that when the redeemer of Israel came to Egypt, he would utter special words. Jacob handed this secret down to Joseph, who later told his brothers. Asher handed the secret down to his daughter, Serakh. When Moses called on the people to leave Egypt, Serakh was the only person alive who had heard the secret words. She recognized them. “Pakod pakad’ti, I have surely remembered…” Serakh told the Israelites that Moses had truly been sent by God.

Finally, when the Israelites were about to leave Egypt, Moses realized that they could not depart until they honored a request that Joseph had made generations earlier. Just before he died, Joseph made the children of Israel promise to take his bones with them when they left Egypt for the land God had sworn to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He wanted to be buried in Israel.

Only Serakh remembered where Joseph had been laid to rest. She told Moses, “The Egyptians made a metal coffin for Joseph that they put in the river Nile so that its waters would be blessed.” Moses stood on the bank of the Nile and cried, “Joseph, Joseph! The time of God’s promise to redeem you has arrived. If you appear, we will take you with us. If you don’t, we are free of our promise to you.” Joseph’s coffin immediately floated to the surface.

Many years later, during the reign of King David, Serakh’s people needed her again. An evil man tried to start a rebellion against the king and one of David’s generals rushed off to destroy the entire city where the man lived. He had already begun to batter down the walls when he heard a woman shouting. “Listen! Listen,” she cried. “There’s another way.” It was Serakh who persuaded him to wait and then convinced the townspeople to turn over the evil fellow. The city was saved. Serakh taught everyone an important lesson. “Wisdom is more valuable than weapons of war” (Ecclesiastes 9:18).

More than a thousand years later, Yochanan ben Zakkai was teaching his students about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. “When the sea parted,” he said, “the wall of water was like a lattice.” A woman in the back of the class disagreed. “I was there and it was only like a window opened for illumination.” It was Serakh.

Tonight, we remember Serakh, without whose help we might still be in Egypt!

* How would you compare the roles of the women of the Exodus in the beginning of the story (Shiphrah and Puah, Miriam, Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter) with those played by Serakh?

* Why was it so important to take Joseph’s bones out of Egypt? What does the story about Joseph and Serakh have to tell us about memory?

* Serakh taught her people that “Wisdom is more valuable than the weapons of war.” What can we learn from that today?

* What meanings might there be in the difference between the way Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Serakh described what the Israelites saw when they crossed Red Sea: a lattice versus a window opened for illumination?

From the Spring 2004 Edition of
Women’s League Outlook Magazine

II. Yocheved's Lesson: Decisive Action Is Required When the World Seems Upside Down By David Arnow

How should the events we're living through influence the way we think about Passover?

In these times there are two messages of Passover that we need to ponder. The first is that seemingly hopeless situations and deeply entrenched evil can be overcome. Freedom triumphed over oppression then, and it will now, too. Passover stands as a beacon of hope in times clouded with despair. It calls us to remember that just as day follows night, we will come through the "darkness to great light." Its message is similar to that found in "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem. "Od lo avdah tikvateinu": “We have not yet lost our hope.” The challenges that beset us may plague us for a long time, but we will move beyond them: the war on terrorism, Israel's struggle for peace in the Middle East, the curse of antisemitism.

If you believe otherwise, you are enslaved by cynicism and have not fulfilled the Haggadah's central injunction: to feel as if you personally had gone forth from Egypt. The wonder of Passover is the wonder of a world that changes for the better, albeit slowly and sometimes with a step or two backward.

The Haggadah's second message is that God is the main character in this human drama of hope and change. It is the strong arm and outstretched hand of God alone that brings us from sorrow to joy. To drive that lesson home, the Haggadah minimizes Moses.

This is not a helpful message at a time when the world so desperately needs fixing. It leads both to passivity and alienation as a result of God's seeming absence precisely when evil struts so brazenly about.

Alas, while the Haggadah provides a deep reservoir of hope, it may not be the best guide to fixing the world. What we also need today is a powerful reminder that righting our upside-down world depends on human action.

We don't have to look far for this lesson. The beginning of the Book of Exodus contains the inspiring but often overlooked story of five women whose actions ultimately play a decisive role in the Exodus.

Pharaoh has turned his world upside down. He decrees that birth shall not mean life, but death. Pharaoh speaks to Shifra and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, and orders them to kill all newborn Hebrew males. "The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king had told them; they let the boys live" (Exodus 1:17).

Yocheved, Moses' mother, hides the baby for three months as Egyptians scour the country for newborn Hebrew boys to drown. Unable to hide her son any longer, Yocheved cooks up a risky plan. She builds a miniature ark to float the baby to safety. Pharaoh's daughter brashly defies her father's call for the murder of Hebrew male infants. Hearing Moses' cry from the basket along the banks of the Nile, "She took pity on it and said, 'This must be a Hebrew child'" (Exodus 2:6). Miriam, Moses' sister, the spy in the tale, then steps in and arranges for Moses' mother to nurse him. Raised in Pharaoh's palace, Moses grows up both as an insider and an outsider--the qualities required of a leader to shepherd people from one world to another, from slavery to freedom.

The heroic deeds of these five women should speak volumes to us about what it takes to fix our world. They display the courage for decisive action. They take risks because they know there are never guarantees. They don't wait for signs and miracles. They also demonstrate the capacity for maintaining concern about the welfare of others in circumstances when it might seem smarter to save your own skin.

Through their actions, Moses becomes the leader God chooses to confront Pharaoh. The rest, so to speak, is history. God plays a role in the story, but only well after human beings have acted decisively to transform their world.

The Forward
March 29, 2002