main postsVa'eira

Parashat Va'eira: By Virtue of Disobedient Women

The Jewish tradition of defying evil decrees
began with the righteous Jewish midwives in Egypt

In the previous Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, we encountered the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, and now, in Parashat Vaeira, we meet two of the female members of Moses’ family by name: Yocheved, his mother; and Elisheva, his brother Aaron’s wife. The predominant opinion of the sages is that Shifrah is Yocheved. Puah is either Miriam or Elisheva.[1] We dedicate our teaching on this Torah portion in their honor, and in honor of the self-sacrifice of the righteous Jewish women, in whose merit the redemption from Egypt came about: “By virtue of righteous women our fathers were liberated from Egypt.”[2]

The Determination of Jewish Women

The special virtue of the Israelite women in Egypt was their determination to maintain the Jewish People even under the harshest conditions. They encouraged their husbands to father children under the grimmest circumstances. The nameless women of Israel bore children despite Pharaoh’s horrendous decrees.

Each mother would transmit the history of the Jewish People to her children. At the end of a day of grueling labor, she would relate stories to her children, teaching them about the Land of Israel, their homeland, and the places where their ancestors were buried. She would sing a lullaby about the redemption, transmitting faith and encouragement from one generation to the next. The children imbibed Jewish consciousness with their mother’s milk. It reinforced their hope and strength during the dark exile.

Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill the first-born Jewish males. Of their own volition, they defied his decree and allowed the babies to live. Their fear of God overrode their fear of the consequences of their defiant action. Jewish consciousness nurtures an innate, stubborn stance against unjust decrees.

Swimming Upstream

Judaism does not submit to dictates from the outside. It does not concede to corrupt social habits because, “Everyone does/thinks like that.” No matter who dictates the decree, a God-fearing Jew will not follow an order that violates the Torah. The opening law of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) reads: “He who is engaged in the service of God should not be ashamed in the face of those who mock him.”[4] “Be as bold as a tiger”—”so that you can show a bold face to those who scorn you.”[5]

In a unique genetic “mutation,” Abraham stamped this quality on all his descendants. He is called, Abraham “from the other side” (הָֽעִבְרִי).[6] When the entire world took one stance, he stood up for his own faith.[7] He shattered his father’s idols without a qualm, suffering a direct confrontation with King Nimrod, who threw him into the furnace.[8] Following in Abraham’s footsteps, the righteous Joseph refused to submit to the seduction of Potiphar’s wife, even under threat of imprisonment or death.[9]

The midwives followed this tradition. Rashi explains that their refusal to obey Pharaoh was both passive [not killing the boys] and active [sustaining them by supplying food and drink].

The reward granted to the midwives is stated explicitly in the Torah: “And because the midwives feared God, He made houses for them.”[10] Their reward was that they became the homemakers of the nation. The kohanim(priests), the Levites, and the Davidic dynasty of kings all descended from their offspring. The Jewish home, at all levels, stands upon firm principles. External dictates, as threatening or enticing as they may appear, cannot defeat us.

Refusing Orders

The requirement to refuse orders if they are not in accordance with the Torah is valid even if they are issued by the highest levels of authority: our parents, a gentile king or a Jewish king.

In general, the Torah commands us to obey our parents[11] and to “Pay respect to royalty.”[12] The Mishnah instructs us to “Pray for the welfare of the government;”[13] and the Talmud states that “The law of the country is the law.”[14] Similarly, we are required to respect and obey the kings of Israel.[15] Yet, when human orders contradict the Torah, we must oppose them.

The Kabbalistic Order

In Kabbalah, the father corresponds to chochmah (the sefirah of wisdom), and the mother corresponds to binah (the sefirah of understanding). These two sefirot are the sources of conscious identity in the soul.

The gentile king represents the external aspect of the superconscious keter (the sefirah of crown) that lies above the father and mother principles. “There is no crown but for the king.”[16] This corresponds to will. Herein lies the point of combat: the gentile king pits his own will against the will of the Jewish soul, which is “an actual part of God above.”[17]

In contrast, a Jewish king corresponds to the inner aspect of keter, in which the power of pleasure resides in the soul. In order to defy the commands of a Jewish king against the Torah, we need to acquire a sense of genuine pleasure founded on our faith in God.

Resisting Parents: Identity and Belonging

God commanded us to respect our parents and to hold them in awe. Our parents represent the authority of God, the third and principal “partner” in creating a child.[18] The verse states, “You shall fear your mother and father, and My Sabbaths you shall keep.”[19] Rashi[20] comments, “Even though I warned you to fear your father, if he should ask you to violate the Sabbath, do not obey him, and so too with the other mitzvot.” Like the child, his parents are servants to God. The priorities regarding a child’s obedience to his parents are clear. When a parent commands his child to carry out an act that opposes the laws of the Torah, the child should not obey. [21]

The law that one must not violate a commandment to obey a parent touches on the core of our identity. Honoring our parents stems from our fundamental gratitude towards those who bore us and took pains to raise us. In Judaism, we also respect them as the transmitters of our Jewish tradition. However, when a parent is on a collision course with God, the child must assert himself, making it clear that his foremost obligation is to He Who vitalizes both his parents and him. My essential identity is that God created me in His image. As a Jew, I am obligated to His commandments. I cannot surrender my commitment to Him, and neither should you.

Refusing a Gentile King: A Willful Decision

The sages describe the dialogue between Chananya, Mishael and Azariah and Nebuchadnezzar when the three refused to bow down to his idol. “[Nebuchadnezzar said] Did the Almighty not command you to obey royalty, no matter what they ask of you?…They replied, you are king over us regarding taxes and property laws, but regarding idolatry, Nebuchadnezzar and the dog are equal!”[22] They began respectfully, but concluded with a good dose of Jewish chutzpah (audacity). Once a non-Jewish king oversteps the limits and attempts to impose deeds that are against our beliefs, all respect of royalty vanishes, and we become bold-faced, fearless in our resistance.

In the Torah portion of Vaeira, we see another example of how to stand up against the decrees of a gentile king. God told Moses, “Come and speak to Pharaoh the King of Egypt that he should send out the Children of Israel from his country.”[23] “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.”[24]

Throughout the subsequent paragraphs, the Torah emphasizes how “hard” Pharaoh’s heart became. God reinforced Pharaoh’s will with the power to defy Him, despite the devastating plagues that He sent. Moses too had to confront Pharaoh in a battle of wills that reached a crescendo (in the following Torah portion of Bo) after he informed Pharaoh of the imminent plague that would kill all Egyptian firstborns.[25] Eventually, even Pharaoh admitted that he was subjugate to the King of kings.[26]

The Talmud[27] describes Moses’ final confrontation with Pharaoh:

“And he [Moses] left Pharaoh in fuming rage”[28] and yet he said nothing to him? Said Resh Lakish: He slapped him and left… R. Yochanan maintained: [God said to Moses] He is a wicked man, therefore be insolent toward him…

An encounter with a gentile king does not touch on issues of identity. Moses’ identity as an Egyptian subject did not compete with his identity as a Jew. Nonetheless, it was difficult to ignore Pharaoh’s power. “If a king declares that he will uproot a mountain, he will uproot the mountain. He will never retract [his word]!”[29]

In the face of a king’s threats, we must summon up infinite willpower and defy him against all odds. This should be to such an extent that we are prepared for self-sacrifice. Having reached this level, we have already defeated our adversary. If he has no option but to carry out his threat, he becomes powerless over us. Even a simple Jew can tap into this infinite power of will. The despotic king can do nothing more than gnash his teeth.

A Jewish King – A Test of Faith

Regarding a Jewish king, Maimonides[30] rules, “If the king decrees to annul a mitzvah, do not heed him.” Only a leadership that accepts the authority of the Almighty is worthy of governing the Jewish People.[31] The sages[32] criticize Yoav, son of Tzruyah for carrying out King David’s command regarding Uriah the Hittite. Not even King David has the privilege to do as he pleases! All are equal in the eyes of God, and the Torah overrides the king’s authority.

In the Talmud,[33] the sages ask which takes precedence—the words of the rabbi or the words of the student. In his ruling, Maimonides[34] altered the wording from “student” to “servant,” stating, “The words of the master take precedence over the words of the servant.” Even a king, with all the respect due to him, is God’s servant. We must obey God, the King of kings, rather than a flesh and blood king.

Refusing a King of Israel: A Decision of Pleasure

A gentile king rules by power of his iron will. He does as he pleases, without any other considerations. The motivation of Jewish leadership is more refined. In Chassidut, will is not the ultimate goal. It is motivated by the pleasure of achieving one’s desire. Pleasure, in turn, is driven by faith. Jewish government cannot rely solely on the power of its will, without identifying with the underlying pleasure principle. For the Jewish People, the deciding factor is our fundamental faith. I fulfill the king’s demands because the pleasure it affords me affirms my faith. When the king’s decree opposes the Torah, identifying with God’s will yields greater pleasure.

To acquire the willpower necessary to defy a non-Jewish king, it is enough to study the practical aspects of the Torah. To achieve the higher level of identifying with Divine pleasure, we need to refine our pleasure by studying the innermost mysteries of the Torah.

The Compliance that Demolished Gush Katif

The power of Jewish leadership depends on the ultimate pleasure of realizing the innate faith of the Jewish soul. Under the leadership of a righteous government, this is achieved by complying with the laws of the Torah.

For many generations, the Jewish People was in exile without a national government. The wish to establish a Jewish state did not stem from a despotic desire to rule over a people, yet neither did it reflect the desire to realize the Jewish tradition in the public arena. There was a clear need for a safe home for all Jews, and a wish to reunite our people under Jewish rule.

The innate Jewish understanding that an iron will cannot overcome ingrained faith in God means that when the leadership is not attuned to Torah precepts, the government is obliged to offer a substitute for faith in God and His Torah. In bygone days, this would be achieved by offering some form of idolatry as an alternative, as did Jeroboam.[35]

In the case of the Israeli government, it draws its authority from its iron will. Yet, because no Jewish government wishes to compete for tyranny with Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, it nurtures a fake national pride. Instead of putting their faith solely in God, most Jewish residents in the Holy Land put their faith in the State of Israel. Their pleasure therefore derives from identifying with this entity and they are compelled to comply with all that it represents. Nonetheless, we are constantly disappointed with the results, because without faith in God, the ultimate pleasure can never be achieved.

As long as the Israeli government detaches its own will from the pleasure of fulfilling our innate Jewish faith in God, there will always be citizens who will defy its laws. Jewish pride is only justified when we carry out orders given in the Name of God.

A Jew who is loyal to God, His people, His land and His Torah, will continue the tradition of Jewish resistance. If for example, he is told, God forbid, to uproot Jewish settlers from their homes, he will defy his officers and join the settlers in their quest to return every square inch of the Holy Land to Jewish hands, as required by Torah law.[36]

The Jewish soul can never completely become detached from its Divine source. In essence, every Jew remains faithful to the Almighty. Obedience to Him corresponds to the innate faith that is the core of the Jewish soul. He is the King of kings and “The Crown of all Crowns.” Our simple faith binds us to God eternally.

When we stand up against adversity by means of pure faith, we have the invincible power to defy evil decrees. This is the power of genuine Jewish resistance that can overcome even a government that offers a substitute for faith in God and His Torah. Ultimately, the Divine soul of the Jewish leaders will influence them to realize their own faith and succumb to the pleasure of serving God through a righteous king with righteous decrees.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash


[1]        Ibid. The first mention of Miriam by name is after the Splitting of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20).

[2]        Sotah 11b.

[4]        Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1.

[5]        Tur, Orach Chaim, 1 (interpreting Avot 5:20).

[6]        Genesis 14:13.

[7]        Bereishit Rabah 42:8.

[8]        Bereishit Rabah 38:13.

[9]        Genesis 39:12-18.

[10]           Exodus 1:21.

[11]       Maimonides, Hilchot Mamrim 6:3.

[12]       Shemot Rabah 7:3; Maimonides.

[13]       Pirkei Avot 3:2.

[14]       Baba Kama 113b.

[15]           Maimonides, Hilchot Melachim 2:1

[16]       Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh, ch. 20.

[17]       Tanya, ch. 2.

[18]           Nidah 31a.

[19]       Leviticus 19:3.

[20]           Ibid, Rashi ad loc

[21]           Maimonides, Hilchot Mamrim 6:12.

[22]       Bamidbar Rabah 15:14.

[23]       Exodus 6:11.

[24]       Ibid 7:3.

[25]           Exodus 11:8.

[26]       Pirkei D’rabi Eliezer 42.

[27]       Zevachim 102a.

[28]       Exodus 11:8.

[29]       Baba Batra 3b.

[30]       Maimonides, Hilchot Melachim 3:8. See Annulling the King’s Decree, in our Hebrew book, Malchut Yisrael, Part 2.

[31]       Ibid, 1:9.

[32]       Sanhedrin 49a.

[33]           Baba Kama 56a.

[34]           Maimonides, Hilchot Melachim 3:10.

[35]       I Kings 12:27-28.

[36]           Maimonides, Hilchot Melachim 5:6.

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