This week’s parashat, Sh’mot from the book of Exodus, is about two heroic women who were not afraid of overcoming challenges in order to do what they knew to be right. The two heroines in the parashat are Egyptian midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. The midwives were instructed by Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, to obey his every order when it came helping the Hebrew women deliver their babies; “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: If it is a boy, kill him, if it is a girl let her live” (verse 1:16). The midwives shocked by their orders and fearful of God decided to ignore the Pharaoh and do what they believed to be morally correct – let all the Hebrew children live. The King of Egypt heard that Hebrew baby boys were surviving and immediately summoned Shiprah and Puah: “Why have you done this thing, letting the boy lives?” (verse 1:18); the midwives replied to Pharaoh: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth” (verse 1:19). The midwives’ bravery and quick, clever, response allowed the Hebrew nation to grow and ultimately set the stage for Moses, our liberator from Egypt, to live. This parashat teaches us that no matter the circumstances, we are in control of our actions, and with a little bit of courage, we have the power to do what is morally just.
On a recent transatlantic flight, I had the opportunity to watch two powerful movies about real women, at different times in history, who stood up for what they believed to be just. Like Shiphrah and Puah, with courage, perseverance, and faith these women were also able to change history.
The first movie I watched, Battle of the Sexes, is about the true-life story of U.S. tennis star, Billie-Jean King. The movie reveals King’s struggles, sacrifices, and humiliation while she fought for women’s equality mainly on the tennis court, but with the ultimate goal of changing how women are viewed in everyday life. The movie focuses on her preparation to play in a tennis match against the formerly ranked number-1, male tennis player, Bobby Riggs. Her win against Riggs on September 20, 1973, was the first of many public stances King made to advocate for women equality. Beyond what was shown in the movie, Billie-Jean King went on to testify on Capitol Hill on behalf of Title IX, prohibiting discrimination in education in institutions that receive federal funding. On August 12, 2009, King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy on behalf of women and the LGBT community. She is a woman of distinction and a true heroine with a vision and perseverance to establish gender equality and social justice.
The other movie I watched was Woman in Gold which imparted a totally different struggle for justice, the restitution of art to Holocaust survivors. The movie is about Maria Altmann, an Austrian-American Jewish woman, who fought to recover five paintings stolen from her family during the Second World War under Nazi occupation. She took her legal case to the Supreme Court and won. Her determination helped to establish the Laws of Art Restitution which ultimately benefited many survivors’ claims to what is rightfully theirs.
I learned about two heroic women, fighting for different causes, plowing through their obstacles knowing that the end goal would benefit a larger population. In the end, like the story relayed in the parashat Sh’mot, the women’s voices were heard, their perseverance won, and equality and justice were gained.
WRJ is an organization that consistently promotes and supports gender and racial equality and social justice for all. I am honored to be part of an organization that puts so much effort into extending these social justices for all members of society.
Like Shiphrah and Puah, let’s be brave and energetic, let’s be inspired to work, and remember the power we have inside us. Let’s join hands and lay the foundation for future generations to live in a just, caring, and compassionate society. Stronger together!
Carmen Holzman is a member of the WRJ Board of Directors, a Vice President of the Northeast District and a Past Sisterhood President of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford, Connecticut.