This post is part of our Torah commentary series. This Shabbat we read Parashat Sh’mot. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.
In the first portion in the book of Exodus, Sh’mot, there’s a new Pharaoh in charge who hates the Israelites and decides to destroy them.
Mothers are all over this story. There’s Moses’ mother, who sends him off in a basket of reeds to save him, and ends up being hired as his wet nurse. There’s Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescues baby Moses from the water and becomes his adoptive mom.
But I want to talk about the non-celebrity moms. The regular, unnamed mothers who make the whole story possible. What we can learn from them, and from Pharaoh himself.
According to a famous midrash, actually, the Israelites only survived because of the women. In this version of the story, Pharaoh’s first plan of attack is to make the men work so hard that they are too exhausted to go home and sleep with their wives. No sex, no babies, no more Israelites!
But Pharaoh had not accounted for the women’s determination to keep their tribe alive. Despite slavery conditions, they came up with an ingenious plan to catch and sell fish, and buy wine with the money. They brought their husbands out into the orchards, drank and flirted with them under the trees, and let nature take its course. The rabbis say that the Israelite women are literally responsible for Jewish survival, because of the sexy vibe they managed to create! (No, the rabbis did not use the term sexy vibe.)
Once this first plan fails, Pharaoh shifts his attack from conception to birth. He commands the Egyptian midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all boy babies born to Israelite women.
But the midwives bravely defy Pharaoh. They give the excuse that Israelite women are so quick in their labor, the midwives can’t even get there in time to deliver the babies, much less kill them!
(I now know this super-fast delivery is a real thing, called “precipitous labor”–the woman who shared my room on the postpartum floor had it, and I learned all about it through the curtain between our beds as she told her story over and over to visiting relatives.)
The Torah says the midwives “let the boys live,” though; so the precipitous labor was just an excuse. The second step in survival was a partnership between ordinary laboring moms and these two brave non-Jewish midwives.
Women and babies play a central role in Pharaoh’s first two strategies for destroying the Jewish people.
But surprisingly, as a mother, the one I related to most was Pharaoh’s third strategy, directed only towards the men. If Pharaoh couldn’t stop procreation and birth, he decided, he would break the men’s spirits by increasing their already staggering workload. He began to require them not only to make bricks, but to gather the straw themselves. This added hours of work every day, yet there was no reduction in the number of bricks they were expected to make.
After the heroic midwives risking their lives to save boy babies, the simple tyranny of impossible expectations seems a bit anticlimactic.
But the Torah presents this unfair demand–adding additional labor and expecting unchanged productivity–as a form of real oppression. It’s repeated over and over, as if to emphasize the crushing nature of this expectation.
As the parent of a young child, I definitely relate. Like Pharaoh, I impose these unreasonable demands on myself. And like the brick-makers, I’m exhausted.
Why would I expect myself to continue to get just as much work done as I did before I became a parent, despite the fact that parenting is a whole second set of responsibilities? And yet, I do. Especially as freelance working parents who share childcare responsibilities, it’s all too easy for both me and my husband to squeeze ourselves into an impossible corner, expecting the same amount of work as we did before without figuring out sufficient childcare. (It’s a bit of a catch-22, of course, because we have to make the money for childcare, so we make do with as few hours as we can, which makes it hard to earn money; I wish we lived in a country where childcare was recognized as a basic human need for all working parents.)
But even if we can’t solve the financial problem right away, we can at least be gentler with ourselves during the early years of straw-gathering.
And it’s especially important because the tyranny of impossible expectations leads back to Pharaoh’s first destruction strategy; if we’re both exhausted from unsustainable lives, who’s going to sell the fish to buy the wine to keep the love alive?
So as we enter the book of Exodus, mamas, I take these lessons from the women of this portion, and from Pharaoh: have reasonable expectations of yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Be strong. And don’t forget the sexy vibe.
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