While the crushing physical labor of the Egyptian exile left the nation exhausted and short of breath, the emotional toll was in many respects worse. Jewish families were torn apart. The people were demoralized and depressed, stripped of the most basic sense of human dignity and self-respect.
To a certain extent the women felt the pain more keenly. After all, it was from their very arms that their babies were taken away to be thrown in the river or cemented alive into brick walls to fill missing quotas. It was they who saw their husbands’ tired faces, agonizing wounds, and mounting depression. It was the women who understood that even in such intense spiritual darkness and oppression, family life must go on and a new generation of children needed to be born.
But no matter how difficult their lot, the women seemed to possess superhuman strength and emunah in HaShem. Instead of plummeting into inconsolable despair, we are told that the woman made an active effort to ensure the continuation of the Jewish nation.
According to the midrash:
When Pharaoh decreed that “every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile” (Shemos 1:22), the men despaired of having more children. What did the women do? They went to draw water, and God provided that half of their jugs be filled with water, and half with small fish. They would return home and place two pots on the fire, one for hot water and the other for the fish, which they would bring to their husbands in the field.
At night, the women would sneak out to the men’s camps with warm, nourishing food. They would heat water in the fields and bathe their husband’s wounds and speak soft soothing words of encouragement. They took out their mirrors, each gazing at herself and her husband in the mirror, enticed him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” In this way they aroused their husbands.
Many women conceived during these visits. When the time came for them to give birth, the women went out to the fields, cast their gaze heavenward, and said to God: “I have done my part regarding what You said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ now You do Your part.” (Sotah 11b)
These very children ensured the continuity of the Jewish people (Midrash Tanchuma; Talmud, Sotah 11a).
The question is… from where did the women get their strength?
In the Egyptian exile, there were no open miracles and no Mishkan. The Avos, and the twelve Shevatim had long ago passed away, and as the oppression grew progressively worse, HaShem’s hashgacha over the Jewish nation remained hidden.
And, it’s not that they were impervious to doubts, either.
According to the Midrash, when Moshe was taken to the river, a disheartened Yocheved hit Miriam on the head and said, “My daughter where is your prophecy now?” This is the same woman who bore three leaders of Clal Yisroel and gave birth to them well after 100 years old- a “hidden” miracle that surpassed that of Sora Imeinu. The is the same woman who with her small daughter brazenly defied the order of the most powerful ruler of the world to kill the Hebrew children.
If Yocheved, a righteous matriarch of the Jewish nation could harbor such doubts, surely the younger generations had to fight to maintain their emunah.
So, what was their secret? The righteous Jewish women in Egypt had four very important things:
1. There was a Divine promise that redemption would be at hand. These women no doubt drew strength from the fact that the Jewish people would indeed survive. They also knew clearly what their goal was: the prepare the nation for this impending geula.
2. They had Miriam. She was a formidable a leader, teacher, and role model who imbued within the women a spirit of strength and emunah.
3. They had each other. The women were incredibly united in their mission. The Torah attests to their mesiras nefesh, commitment to family purity, and their desire to draw close to HaShem. No doubt, each woman was a source of chizuk and insipiration to those around her.
4. They no doubt had their personal avoda. Chazzal tell us that at the time of the redemption from Egypt, these righteous women were on the level of tzaddikim. How did they get to that level in a personal sense?
Every single day each woman was presented with the choice to fall into depression or move a bit closer to her Creator. Every morning each woman woke up to the darkness of the Egyptian exile and chose to focus on the light within it. When one of them would briefly fall into despair, she quickly picked herself up again, and continued to push forward, further encouraging those around her.
This should an inspiration for us today. These days, we also have a Divine promise of redemption, and there are many “Miriams” among us, offering chizuk, encouragement, and clarity. But perhaps most importantly, today, as well as every single day, each one of us has the ability to choose to see the light within the darkness- whether that darkness is in the world at large, our communities, our homes, or even within ourselves. The more we choose to focus on that light and move towards it, the stronger we’ll be and the further we’ll go, bringing everyone else along with us.