R. Avira expounded: Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of the righteous women of that generation. When they went to draw water, the Holy One for their sake caused so many small fish to be scooped up into their pitchers that only half of what they drew up was water and the other half fish. They would then heat two pots, one with hot water and the other with fish, both of which they brought to their husbands in the field. There the women washed their husbands, anointed them, fed, them, and gave them to drink. Then, lying secluded between mounds in the fields, they responded to their men. After that, they returned to their homes. When the time for giving birth came, they went into the fields and gave birth under an apple tree, as it is said, Under an apple tree I roused you; there your mother was in labor with you, there was she in labor and brought you forth (Song of Songs 8:5). Then from the heights of heaven the Holy One sent an angel, who cleansed the infants and massaged their bodies as a midwife does to make a child look beautiful. Then God selected for each of them two breast-shaped stones, one filled with honey and the other with oil, as it is said, And God made him suck honey out of the crag and oil out of the flinty rock (Deuteronomy 32:13). When the Egyptians became aware of these infants, they came to slay them. But then another miracle occurred: the infants were swallowed up by the ground. At that, the Egyptians brought oxen and plowed the area where they had disappeared. But as soon as the Egyptians left, the infants burst forth out of the ground like grass in the field. As the infants grew up, they came running to their homes in flocks. Later, when God revealed himself at the Reed Sea, these infants [now grown] were the first to recognize God, for they said, This is my God (Exodus 15:2).
The story of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt raises many questions, large and small. Among those addressed in the story above is one strikingly large and broad, and one rather small and narrow. The larger question can be expressed this way: Given that it took God 400 years to come to Israel’s rescue, why did God finally decide to save Israel? The smaller question is prompted by a single verse in the Song of the Sea (Exodus, chapter 15), the song of redemption sung by the Israelites after they crossed the Sea of Reeds and saw the Egyptians cut off by the returning waters from any ability to recapture them. The second verse of the song says, This is my God. How could any Israelites utter those words? When had any of them seen God so that they could recognize God in the Reed Sea?
R. Avira makes a surprising and radical claim: All Israel were redeemed from Egypt on the merit of the women of that generation. Why? Because the women actively sought to promote the generation of new lives. How? The women drew up fish from the Nile (with God’s assistance), cooked a sumptuous, high-protein meal, and brought it to their husbands who were toiling for Pharaoh in the fields. There they did far more than feed their husbands. They thoroughly seduced them, washing them and massaging them with oil. Their husbands responded as we might expect, making love to their wives right there in the field and impregnating them.
Given Pharaoh’s decree to kill baby boys, the women returned to the field to deliver in secret (a marvelous verse from Song of Songs here). God served as midwife to the women and nursemaid to their babies. An angel (angels are often understood in the Bible to be physical manifestations of God in our world) performed the duties of a midwife, cleaning and massaging the newborns. God, as nursemaid, provided rocks shaped like breasts to dispense honey and oil to nourish the infants (again, a great verse from Deuteronomy is brought here).
Even in the fields, however, danger lurked. Pharaoh’s secret police became aware of the infants and came searching. God arranged for the earth to swallow them up and conceal them. The Egyptians plowed the earth in their frantic attempt to discover them with no success. When the children had grown sufficiently to no longer be threatened by Pharaoh’s decree, they went running back to their homes. These children, raised by God as their metapelet—their nanny or foster mother—were the Israelites who, at the Reed Sea, recognized God and sang, “This is my God!”
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Consider the contrast between the earth swallowing up the infants to protect them, and the story of Korach and his minions (Numbers chapter 16), who were punished for rebelling by being swallowed up by the earth. Do you think the Talmud intends us to compare the two stories? If so, what is gleaned or learned by considering them side by side?
- If Israel was redeemed on the merit of the women of the generation that left Egypt, does that imply that prior generations were deemed unworthy of being saved, or that people enslaved, abused, and persecuted must prove themselves worthy of rescue before God is moved to intervene? For those who consider God a being, as well as those who do not consider God a being, or do not believe God is capable of intervening in history or contravening the laws of physics (i.e., making miracles), could this statement be construed as suggesting that persecuted people must prove themselves worthy of rescue? How else might this be understood?
- Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 21:6 (see passage below) says that Torah’s assertion that God spoke with the people at Mount Sinai “face to face” (Dt. 5:4) was not a singular event. At signal moments, God appears to people in the guise they most need: at the Reed Sea, God appeared as a warrior, at Mount Sinai, as a wizened sage. What images of God appeal to you, and when do you call on them?
R. Levi said: God faced [Israel] in many guises. To one [God] appeared standing, and to one seated; to one as a young man, and to one as an old man. How so? At the time the Holy One blessed be God appeared at the Reed Sea to wage war for His children and to requite the Egyptians, [God] faced them as a young man since war is waged best by a young man, as it is said, Adonai is a warrior, Adonai is [God’s] name (Exodus 15:3). —Pesikta Rabbati 12:6