Jewish Women: Key to the Redemption

The Talmud (Sotah 11a) attributes the Egyptian redemption to Jewish women, explaining that they seduced their husbands to continue bearing children, despite Pharaohs' cruel decree to toss all Jewish baby boys into the Nile. What is odd, however, as noted by R. Yehuda Rozanes in the fifth section of his collection of ingenious sermons Parshat Derakhim, is that the Gemara's rpooftext goes on to indicate that due to the Jewish women, the Jews merited to loot the Egyptian coffers before fleeing the country. What is more, he notes, the entire premise of the Gemara is odd: the Jews merited to leave not by dint of the women's righteousness but on the strength of God's promise to Abraham hundreds of years prior?!

R. Rozanes offers a remarkable suggestion: the Gemara does not mean to suggest that the Jews were redeemed due to the Jewish women, but that they were redeemed early. After all, according to the original plan, the Jews were slated to be enslaved for 400 years. In fact, however, they were liberated after 210. Why? Some sources indicate that it was simply a matter of God's boundless love for the Jewish people. R. Rozanes, however, picks up on another midrashic thread in proposing a creative, if unexpected, answer: by seducing their husbands to lie with them even at a time of great threat, the Jewish women ensured the significant growth of the Jewish population. Due to the sharp rise in births, the Jews managed to complete 400 years worth of work in just 210, and so they were freed early.

What of the curious connection between the Egyptian booty and the Jewish women? Here, R. Rozanes suggests that the booty was in fact a form of compensation for the (previously) free Jewish labor. The intention of the Gemara is that the Jews earned this "salary" earlier than they otherwise would have due to the righteousness actions of that generation's women. Thus, the Gemara does not contradict God's promise to Avraham: the women's contribution was to speed up the redemption rather that guarantee it in the first place.

While R. Rozanes' highly novel suggestion is that the Jewish women's primary role was in hastening the redemption, we might suggest a somewhat different explanation for their role in the Talmudic accounting. By seducing their husbands and ensuring the safe birth of Jewish children in the dark shadow of Pharaoh's brutal regime, the women instilled hope in the possibility of a Jewish future. As we detail in the Hagadah, God responded to the Jews' cry for help. That cry to God, however primal, would have been inconceivable had the Jewish men utterly forsaken any hope for the future.

On this reading, in addition to ensuring the physical survival of the Jewish nation, the primary significance of the women's romantic actions was to hold out to their families and the entire Jewish community an optimistic vision for the Jewish future. All Jews, men and women alike, are forever indebted to that generation of women for their defiant optimism in the face of a forbidding future. In that sense, it was truly in the merit of the righteous women that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt.