“The Israelites were fertile and prolific, and their population increased” (Exodus 1:7). All this was accomplished by Israel while guarding their unique identity and faith, namely, that God would remember and return them to their holy land to establish a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The Egyptians had a choice: They could encourage Israel’s vision to return to their land, and even assist them – as remuneration for all the good they received in the merit of Yosef and the Israelites. Egotistically, however, the Egyptians chose to view this as a threat: How come the Israelites don’t assimilate into our culture, they thought? The Egyptians couldn’t understand this. Thus began the insufferable slavery – whose goal was double: to exploit Israel’s manpower for wealth, and also to strip them of their will to live, to dissolve their unique identity, and to eradicate them from the world. For this purpose, the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites oppressively with back-breaking labor. Someone who did not work was killed. Someone who did not work fast enough was beaten brutally. When the Egyptians saw that despite all this, the Israelites continued to be fruitful and multiply, they hardened the slavery, and for a number of long months, forced the men to sleep in the fields where they labored – to prevent them from being with their wives.
The Men Lost Their Will to Live
The hard labor shattered the men’s bodies and humiliated their spirits. How could a husband look into the eyes of his wife? Wasn’t he meant to take care of her, to protect her from enemies and harassers, to support and honor her, and to be an example for their children? But here he was, a disgraced slave, subjected to the trampling feet of his oppressor and taskmaster.
In such a situation, men usually lose their will to live. They have no dignity. They are sure that women see them as worthless losers and don’t love them anymore. In order not to have these fears confirmed and be additionally humiliated, they prefer to distance themselves from their wives. Also, men in such a situation don’t want to have more children. Why have more kids? So they too can become humiliated slaves?!
The crucial question was: What would the women do?
Will the Women Assimilate?
In those times, the daughters of a nation defeated in battle made every effort to join the winning side. If their men are not capable of protecting them and their children, or providing them with honor and a livelihood, it would be better for them to try their luck with the victorious men. Back then, it was customary that wealthy and strong conquerors would marry a number of women. Therefore, even if the victors were already married, hope existed that they would take an additional wife from the defeated nation. Therefore, women on the defeated side usually agreed to be more subservient and industrious.
Women cannot be criticized for this – it was an order of survival. Parents most likely even encouraged their daughters to do so, this being the only way to guarantee a better future and the continuation of their family. In this manner, all defeated nations disappeared off the stage of history. The women joined the conquerors, the men were taken into slavery, and after the last of them died, there was no one left to remember the legacy of the nation that once was.
One could have expected that similarly in Egypt, most of the Israelite women would make every effort to find favor in the eyes of the well-off Egyptian men, joining them in order to find a new life for themselves. Apparently, the Egyptians also hoped that the Israelite women would yearn for them – awaiting the disappearance of the Hebrew nation.
In the Merit of Righteous Women
However, the spark of the Israeli soul was not extinguished. It endured in the merit of the women who remained loyal to their husbands. Despite their husbands being humiliated as slaves, the women continued to have faith in them, to see the good in them, to honor and love them. This is what the Sages have said: “In the merit of righteous women of the generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b).
Seeing that the Egyptians did not allow their husbands to return home after laboring strenuously, the women would draw water from the wells to heat up for their husbands. God sent small fish into the wells, and the women would place two pots on the fire – one for hot water, and the other to cook the fish. They would bring the pots to their husbands in the fields, wash them, rub them with oil they had found, and feed them.
All of these measures were actually hints: “Maybe the Egyptians see you as a despised slave, but in my eyes, you are dear and important. And just as I would have greeted you happily after coming home from a respectable job, similarly today, I come to you in the field to wash your tired feet and rub your aching body, because you are my husband and my love”.
Mirrors of the Multitudes
Nevertheless, the men were reluctant, remembering all the time how their slave masters beat and humiliated them. They didn’t believe that their wives really loved them. Wishing to raise their spirits, the women would sell a few of the fish and buy some wine. After they ate and drank, the women would take out little mirrors they had brought with them, and look at themselves and their husbands in the mirror. The wife would laugh at the sight of the two of them and say, “I’m prettier than you”, and inspired, the husband would say “No, I’m prettier than you”. Thus, they would arouse the happiness of love between husband and wife, and God would immediately make them fruitful and multiply.
They Are the Most Cherished
Generations later, when God asked Moshe to gather contributions for the building of the Tabernacle, all of Israel answered the call and donated. Some of them brought gold, some silver, while others brought copper or precious stones. The women said: “What can we offer as a donation to the Tabernacle? They arose and brought those very mirrors with which they had adorned themselves while visiting their husbands in the fields. And although they dearly cherished those mirrors, given their great love for holiness, the women did not refrain from donating them. Moshe Rabbeinu despised the mirrors because they were created for the evil inclination. Some authorities say that he even became furious with the women, exaggeratingly saying to those who stood near him: ‘Grab sticks and break their legs’ for having had the “chutzpah” to offer those mirrors for the holy service.
God said to Moshe: “You ridicule those mirrors? Those mirrors established all the multitudes in Egypt! Accept them, for they are my most cherished gift of all. Take and form them into the copper basin and its pedestal, from which the priests sanctify themselves for the holy service (Tanchuma, Pikudei 9; Rashi, Shmot 38:8).
This teaches us that there isn’t anything purer than love which is not dependent on a specific factor and brings life to the world.
Give Praise to the Righteous Women of Our Generation
Similar to the past, in the merit of the righteous women of our times who with endless love and devotion, while facing tremendous difficulties and influences from all directions nevertheless nurture large families – we continue to be redeemed. They strengthen their love for their husbands, and in such an atmosphere, raise their children. They rise early in the morning to straighten up the house and wake their children for kindergarten or school. They lose sleep while worrying about their children’s education. Every day, time and again, they get up in the morning to face all the work and burdens, bringing provisions to their homes, and pleasing their children with all sorts of foods and dishes. And all of this is done with love, stemming from a great faith that life is good, and there is nothing more precious than adding life to the world. “Her children rise (upon rising in the morning and finding everything prepared for them, her children will express their thankfulness to her – Ibn Ezra) and make her fortunate; her husband – and he praises her…Give her the fruit of her hand, and let her deeds praise her in the gates.” And when the good angels who accompany their husband’s home from the synagogue on Shabbat evening arrive, they see all the efforts the women had made before Shabbat – cleaning the house, preparing the food, laundering everybody’s clothes, and dressing them all — young, and old. The angels gaze in the tired faces of the righteous women and say: “May it be God’s will that it be so next Shabbat”, as written in the Talmud (Shabbat 119b). They say: In the merit of these righteous women, Israel will be redeemed. And the evil angels are compelled to answer ‘amen’.