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Happy Birthday

The back stage has been revealed as the only stage. And the audience? Only G-d

The world feels apocalyptic right now. Throbbing beneath the surface is the intriguing statement of Chazal that it was in the merit of righteous women that we were redeemed in the past, and it is in the merit of righteous women that we will be redeemed in the future.

Despite the heartwarming deluge of seminars, classes, series, and summits linking women to Geulah, one might be excused — especially if one is a man —for wondering why specifically righteous women?

The answer may lie in understanding that all of us have both a male and female aspect. The first human being was created androgynous, and all of the Jewish People are cast as feminine toward G-d. Perhaps it’s specifically the feminine aspect of each of us — the part that has historically been disparaged — which needs to be cultivated at this time.

Our dual aspects of self are highlighted when we think about redemption because there are two aspects of redemption, and each of us need to relate to them both.

The male aspect of redemption — the more dramatic, sensational, and impressive — was to take the people out of Egypt. The female aspect — quieter, infinitely slower, and almost anti-climactic — was to take Egypt out of the people.

These two types of redemption require completely different skill sets. The female skill set will accomplish nothing for the first goal, while the male set is useless for the second goal.

Taking the Jews out of Egypt involved might, power, drama, and theatrics. It required G-d’s intervention and His manipulating the laws of nature. The clashing and banging as a huge empire smashed to the ground — towering egos tumbling off royal thrones, mighty armies helplessly bobbing in a roiling sea, horses and chariots swirling into a vortex of quicksand — still echoes through the ages.

But taking Egypt out of the Jews is another kind of redemption. It’s a redeeming of the heart, and hearts cannot be commandeered. Hearts, like plants, can only grow and develop, evolve and flower, unfolding leaf by delicate leaf, blossom by beautiful blossom.

Trying to force a change of heart would be like trying to plant an apple tree by using steel excavation tools to dig an enormous hole, shooting streams of water from a power truck, and stamping the earth around the seedling by jumping up and down and yelling, “Faster! Harder! More!”

When we tell the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim on Seder night, we need to be aware that there are two stories taking place. One involves a “male” redemption, a Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm that reaches down and manipulates nature, overturns empires, smashes opposition to smithereens. But there’s another story as well, a quieter, more feminine story about a slave nation deeply embedded within the womb of Egypt, who needed to be birthed into the light of day and truth, who needed to be nurtured and taught. A nation whose unfolding into its role as “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” would take thousands of years.

As the Rambam tells us in Moreh Nevuchim (III:32), Hashem may manipulate nature, He may intervene to change the course of events, He may make miracles, but Hashem will never manipulate human hearts (with Pharaoh being the famous exception). Redemption of the heart can never be arrogated, it can only be invited, inspired, and aroused.

Women as Midwives

The story of redemption — the story of our birth as a Nation — starts (appropriately enough) with two midwives who feared G-d. As the Midrash points out, the same skills these holy women used to bring babies into the world, they used to bring the Jewish People closer to closer to Hashem’s vision for them.

Shifra, from the word meshaperes, enhanced not only the baby, but the Jewish People’s actions before G-d. Puah, whose name is related to speech, comforted babies with sweet sounds, but also used her speech to defy and argue with Pharaoh, to prophesize, to cry over her brother, to present the Jewish people well before G-d, and to persuade her father to have more children.

Long before the theatrics and drama at the palace unfold, there’s a low-key encounter between two women. One, a lowly Hebrew slave, the other a royal princess. But the encounter is very human one; note the lack of obsequiousness on the part of Miriam when she approaches the princess, offering her mother as a wet nurse for the baby boy found in the water. Feminine energy, focused as it is on connection, often ignores status and hierarchy. None of the usual jockeying of power which a male counterpart of this exchange might yield — just a straightforward suggestion for a win-win solution.

It is the royal princess, Batya (meaning daughter of G-d), the most unlikely heroine of all, who underscores how the heart resides in a realm all of its own. Daughter of Pharaoh, she had grown up in a home saturated with evil, yet, the Midrash tells us she had come down to the water to rinse off the effects of idol worship.

Her search for truth makes her reach beyond the natural borders of self (see Rashi, who has her stretching her arm further than her natural capacity) to rescue the baby from the water. And loving actions precipitate loving responses. “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to her, ‘Moshe was not your son, yet you called him your son. You are not my daughter, but I shall call you my daughter’ ” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3).

This was the woman who was going to raise Moshe — give him his name and his destiny. And it was in the particular setting in which Batya placed him, the royal palace, that Ibn Ezra and others suggest was crucial in cultivating the qualities that Moshe would need as a leader. The seeds for greatness were planted.

Moshe as Midwife

Unlike the drama of male redemption, female redemption can feel hopeless. Growth is so inestimably slow. Maybe it’s a mirage and nothing is changing at all?

How much easier it would be if we could just open up a USB port into our children’s skulls and pour all our values and ideals straight into their souls. How much easier to hit the rock instead of talking to it!

Many years later, Moshe Rabbeinu expressed his frustration to Hashem: “Why have you done evil to Your servant… that you have placed the burden of this entire People upon me? Did I conceive this nation or give birth to it that you say to me carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling?”

Rashi wonders at Moshe’s claiming that Hashem had told him to carry the people in his bosom. Where did Hashem instruct him to do so? In a mind-blowing insight, Rashi concludes that this happened when Hashem tells Moshe, (Shemos 32:34) “Go and lead the People.”

Leading the people, apparently, means exactly that — carrying them and caring for them as you would a baby. It means nurturing, guiding, holding, and even mollycoddling. It means being their mother as well as their father.

Rashi tells us, a few verses later, that Moshe’s anguish over this was so great that “toshash kocho k’nekeivah, he became as weak as a female.

The female persona is indeed weak from the perspective of the male language of power. If strength is measured by the ability to impose one’s will upon others, women have long ago discovered that that rarely works. Even with a storehouse of “male” resources — you may be bigger, stronger, more talented, more successful, and smarter than this barely-heavier-than-a-bag-of-flour-baby, but when he won’t stop crying, or keeps throwing his food off the high chair tray, your edge is meaningless.

The feminine persona knows that when you want to mold someone, to change them, to make your mission their mission, it’s not power and strength that you need. Hitting your kid on the head, even with the best intentions in the world, will not implant your values into said head and certainly not into his heart. The redemption needed here is the feminine art of connection.

It’s frustrating and it’s slow, but mothers (on their good days) can access the truth. Those minute interactions, the caring about details, eventually, hopefully, coalesce into a life mission. From that tiny seed, from those tedious hours and minutes and seconds, from the faith in the power of chinuch, faith in the power of modeling, faith in the human spirit, a great, beautiful tree is sometimes birthed into the world.

Batya, the Egyptian princess, called the baby she saved Moshe, because “from the water he has been drawn out.” The Maharal points out that if that was the reason for his name, she should have called him Mashuy, which means “one who has been drawn out.” The name Moshe means “one who will draw out.”

Our life experiences, disjointed, painful, and mundane as they seem at the time, inform us, they obligate us and transform us. Moshe was drawn from a watery death, and his entire life would be dedicated to drawing others from death to life.

It’s fascinating to note that Moshe was our savior, our leader, our hero, our king — he was there facilitating and orchestrating all the physical salvations our journey required. And yet the name with which the Jewish People have always referred to him is Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher. What made the lasting impression was not the drama, but the vision he held up before us, through his actions and his teaching — revealing the path that leads to G-d.

Hashem as Midwife

Behind the male redemption story, there’s always the feminine subtext. In describing our emergence as a nation, Yechezkel Hanavi returns to this motif, describing the Jewish people as an abandoned newborn.

“… And your navel was not cut, nor were you washed with water for cleansing, nor were you salted and swaddled at all. No eye pitied you to do this for you….”

The Jewish People were lost, but Hashem, in His infinite love for us, and His faith in us, reached down and gave us the opportunity to redeem ourselves from that sorry state through two mitzvos. This was followed by a long list of acts of nurturing, each laden with hints of G-d’s love and longing for Israel.

“… And I washed you with water, and rinsed off your blood, and I anointed you with oil, and I clothed you with embroidered garment, and I shod you. And I girded you with fine linen, and I covered you with silk, and I adorned you with ornaments, and I… put a crown of glory on your head.”

Eventually the long hoped-for and much prayed-for day arrives, when the child stands on his own two feet and shows that his parents’ life mission is branded upon his own heart and soul, that he has made it his own.

“And you adorned yourself with gold and silver, and your raiment was fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth… and you became exceedingly beautiful, and you became fit for the throne. Then your name went out among the nations for your beauty, for it is all inclusive, with My majesty that I placed upon you, says the L-rd, G-d.”

Although after this beautiful beginning the prophecy proceeds to a tragic ending, it is still seeded with hope and with faith in the Jewish People’s ability to achieve G-d’s vision for them.

All of Us as Midwifes

How apt it is, that in the time span between the holiday of Purim, in which our redemption was orchestrated by a woman, Esther, and the holiday of Pesach, in which our redemption was set into motion by a cadre of women with hearts full of courage and love, that coronavirus has us all hunkered down in that one place that has always been a woman’s domain: the home.

For generations, in the masculine-adulating Western world in which we live, we’ve viewed the world as having a backstage and a front stage. Front stage, center, were the men, doing the important work — with the word important meaning visible, measurable, acquisitive, and competitive. Backstage were the women who were the stagehands, doing the “unimpressive” supportive work for the main actors, either pre- or post-center stage.

But corona lifted up the curtain, and now there is no front-center stage. The performance is over. The rat race is ended. The glitter and glamour are gone. All that is left is ourselves and our inner world. The back stage has been revealed as the only stage. And the audience? Only G-d.

During the Exodus, Hashem transformed the laws of nature for us. Corona has opened up a cosmic door into an inner feminine world, where we can transform our own natures — from external-validation seeking, to internally focused — for Him.

Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi, an Israeli outreach organization, and author of Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 688)

 

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