Passover begins Friday night. Not a single woman is mentioned in the Haggadah — the traditional Passover telling of the story of the Israelites’ enslavement to Pharoah in Egypt and how Moses led them, with divine assistance, into freedom. And yet, the actions of five women at the beginning of the biblical Exodus narrative and five women at the end of it feel particularly relevant in this moment.
This is, after all, the third Passover of the Trump administration, and the first since Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives. The story Jews tell during this season about liberation from an oppressive government can be illuminating to many of us now — Jews and non-Jews alike — as we try to understand what it takes to cross the fraught waters toward redemption and what tools we need to get there.
In the Torah, the story opens with a Pharaoh concerned about shifting demographics and the impact they might have on his rule — a theme that is all too resonant today. And how does Pharaoh best know how to control a population? By going after the children.
In this horrific milieu, we meet two midwives — Shifra and Puah — who choose to bravely engage in civil disobedience: They let the boys they’re tasked to kill live, and when discovered, tell Pharaoh that they simply couldn’t get there in time. These women presumably had little power in the imperial system, yet they put themselves at great risk to defy official orders.
We also find Moses’s mother, Yocheved, who, like many mothers in dangerous, untenable situations, takes the least awful option available to her and floats him in a basket down the Nile, hoping for his rescue. Pharoah’s daughter (known in later Jewish sources as Batya), uses her privilege to save the baby. Moses’s sister, Miriam, then pluckily offers to provide the baby a wet nurse; Pharoah’s daughter agrees to send the baby back to his mother, paying wet nurse wages. The safety and care of even this one vulnerable child was a group effort.
None of these women were able to implement systemic change. But each did what she could, using her power and capabilities to try to outmaneuver the system to make small improvements.
Likewise, not every Jewish child was successfully hidden in the Holocaust. Not every undocumented immigrant today has found sanctuary in houses of worship. Not every unjustly incarcerated woman has Kim Kardashian West going to bat for her. But, the women of Exodus tell us, we’re still obligated to do what we can, within our sphere of power and influence, to try to protect and preserve life — even at great personal risk, and sometimes in ways that are even subversive.
We’re also told that’s not the only way to fight for justice.
At the end of the Exodus narrative, at the very end of the book of Numbers — after the Israelites have made their way through 40 years in the desert, poised at the edge of the Promised Land — we find five sisters making change in a very different way. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah come to Moses after their father, Tzlaphchad, has died. They had no brothers, so their inheritance is to be parceled out to distant male relatives. They ask for their inheritance, using the language of the system they are trying to change. Moses and God confer, and it’s decided that this case calls for structural transformation: a large-scale rewriting of inheritance laws. On the other side of freedom, after crossing the Red Sea and everything that followed, the Israelites had to figure out how to create a just society — and even then, it was a work in progress.
The daughters of Tzlaphchad challenge authority by going through established chains of command. When the system is reasonable but not perfect, it often makes sense to try to move the needle according to established rules.
This is also our situation now, too. Our democratic system remains imperfect, as ever, but it nonetheless offers protections. The courts are hedging some abuses of power; this week, a federal court struck down President Trump’s attempted repeal of a rule aiming to make it harder for companies to mine and drill on taxpayer-owned land. Federal courts have ruled against Trump at least 63 other times, giving him a “win rate” in the courts of about 6 percent — compared with a typical “win rate” for the government of about 70 percent. In Congress, the Green New Deal has gained momentum and popularity and will probably be a major talking point in the upcoming election cycle — and has the potential for real impact against climate change. The War Powers Act was just invoked for the first time to end U.S. involvement with the Saudi war in Yemen, forcing Trump to veto the resolution. The now-Democratic-led House Oversight and Intelligence committees are busy doing their jobs.
And yet, while Trump is in office, human rights abuses will continue to be perpetrated; atrocities will continue to be committed. The president reportedly pushed out Kirstjen Nielsen, his Homeland Security secretary, because he wants someone who will be even “tougher” on immigration than the woman who inhumanely and incompetently carried out the family separation policy, stepped up the detention and deportation of nonviolent immigrants, and presided over the tear-gassing of migrant families trying to cross the border into freedom. The hour is still upon us to resist injustice and fight for human rights and human dignity in whatever way possible, and to try to care for as many people as possible in the process.
Different tactics serve us in different contexts. Sometimes we are dealing with a Pharoah who doesn’t care what we think, and sometimes with a government that is, at least, workable. Sometimes we need to create change by working within the system, and sometimes we need to do everything in our capacity agitating from outside it. The 10 women bookending the Exodus story teach us that we have a range of tools to fight for justice at our disposal, that what we do and how we do it depend both on the situation and on each of our individual capacities and talents.
Despite their absence from the Haggadah, the Talmud teaches that “the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt because of the merit of the righteous women of that generation.” Then, as now, redemption may only come when we center the acts and methods of resistance that are too often overlooked, when we lift up the voices of those most impacted, when we find our own unique role in the work to be done. These stories feel so resonant today because the Bible is profoundly concerned with both abuse of power and our responsibilities when we have power; this should be our concern as well.