Using the Feminine Plural

The process of preparing to read from the Torah can sometimes lead to unexpected discoveries—for instance, back in January when I was preparing to read from Parashat Shemot. Relevant to the upcoming festival of Pesach, it was the famous scene of pharaoh’s daughter finding the baby Moses in a basket. Despite the fact that the portion was made up of narrative (which is generally considered easier to prepare) and was shorter than many of the readings that I routinely do, I found this reading surprisingly difficult to master. I repeatedly tripped over the same verbs and conjugations, though I had re-read them numerous times. After a while, I realized that the reason I was having so much trouble was because nearly all of the verbs in the passage were conjugated to the feminine plural form—a rare occurrence in Biblical Hebrew! In fact, I realized that it was the first time that I recalled ever encountering the feminine plural while preparing a Torah reading. There simply aren’t that many biblical examples of woman acting as a group without the participation of men.

Putting aside the other obvious implications of this discovery, it struck me as appropriate that this instance where we find woman taking action together independent of men is the very foundation of our liberation story. These women (the slave midwives Shifra and Puah, Moses’ mother, pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaidens, the child Miriam), represent the disenfranchised of ancient Egyptian society. Yet, their simple and humane actions make possible the liberation of an entire people. These women recognize the brutal injustice of the existing order and they collude with each other to subvert it by saving the baby Moses, an action that ultimately brings about massive social change.

In fact the key figure in this story is also the least empowered: Moses’ sister, Miriam. A child, a slave, and a female, her status as an underdog and an outsider is threefold. Yet, it is her bravery and cunning that set the wheels of change in motion. Perhaps it is for this reason that our tradition puts such a great emphasis on teaching the story of the Exodus to even our youngest children, because from it we learn that we are never too small, never so disempowered that we cannot in some way effect tikkun olam, positive change in our world.

May this Passover be a time of joyous discover for you and your family and may we all find in it the strength and inspiration to create true freedom and justice in our world.