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Challenging the Status Quo, With Love

(This post, which first appeared in the Jewish Press, describes the impact of two Jewish heroines, one ancient and one modern. Both women greatly impacted their nation as they challenged their male counterparts to think differently about their collective future. Their respective accounts offer us many lessons about leadership and change.)

“Status quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’” – Ronald Reagan

Their morale had never been lower. Their need for clarity of vision was never greater.

Nearly one hundred fifty years after Joseph’s death, Miriam was born as the eldest child to Amram and Jochebed. Her parents were distinguished people from the young tribe of Levi, generational leaders at a most difficult time for the burgeoning Hebrew nation. In the short period following the passing of Jacob’s sons, their people had been increasingly subjected to the rigors and oppression of harsh slavery in Egypt.

And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation… Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal wisely with them...” And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with hard labor. They embittered their lives with hard labor, with clay and with bricks and with all kinds of labor in the fields, all their work that they worked with them with back breaking labor. (Exodus 1:6, 8-10, 13-14)

The servitude intensified around the time of Miriam’s birth, and would remain at that augmented level until her nation’s liberation some eighty-five years later.

Already at a young age, Miriam played a significant role in countering the effects of the Egyptian oppression. The biblical narrative records how she and her mother, midwives by trade, saved countless male Jewish babies in the face of a royal decree that had directed them to cast those younglings into the Nile. The midwives defended their conduct to Pharaoh by asserting that Jewish women naturally birthed quickly, like beasts in the field, greatly diminishing their capacity to kill the children.

It was not enough that Miriam defied the mighty monarch. She also took a stand against her father Amram, the leading generational sage, after he voluntarily divorced her mother Jochebed. Amram’s action was reasonable enough; once he learned of Pharaoh’s wicked decree, he decided that would bring no more children into the world. Why beget offspring only for them to be murdered at birth? All of the men followed his example and summarily divorced their wives as well.

Young Miriam vehemently objected. Despite her youth, she saw farther and had greater conviction and trust in God than even her great father. She knew that having children was the ultimate life-affirming act and understood that her people could not allow Pharaoh to break their spirit or destroy their will. She was also convinced that God would redeem them. Miriam complained to her father that his action was much harsher than Pharaoh’s own edict. The Egyptian ruler had decreed against the males, while her father was guaranteeing that no Jewish child would be born at all, female or male.

From Miriam’s perspective, the Jewish men were doing Pharaoh’s job for him. In preventing the birth of any Jewish children, they were making it far too easy for the Egyptians. Why assume that they would find and kill every Jewish male baby? Perhaps some would survive and perpetuate their nation! Amram relented and remarried Jochebed. Moses, the future Jewish savior, was the product of that reunion. All the other Jewish men followed his example and reunited with their wives.

Later, we find Miriam positioned along the banks of the Nile, carefully watching over her newborn brother Moses as he floated downstream in a reed basket. The baby had drawn significant Egyptian attention, particularly at a time when royal astrologers had predicted the imminent birth of the eventual Jewish savior. Jochebed had hidden him for three months until she could conceal him no longer.

In what would become one of history’s great ironies, Pharaoh’s own daughter found the floating baby as she was bathing in the Nile. Moved with compassion, she disobeyed her father’s decree and saved him, knowing full well that he was of Hebrew stock. “She opened (the basket), and she saw him the child, and behold, he was a weeping lad, and she had compassion on him, and she said, ‘this is a Hebrew’s child’” (Exodus 2:6). Moreover, at Miriam’s recommendation she hired a Hebrew wet nurse – Jochebed – to feed and care for the lad. After some time, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son and raised him in the royal palace.

The fact that Miriam mustered up the temerity to approach the king’s daughter, particularly a child of a monarch who was clearly invested in the enslavement and subjugation of her people, is yet another indication that she put others and their needs in front of her own.

For the next eight decades – the harshest and most oppressive years of the Jewish enslavement – the Torah shares little about Miriam. For that matter, we hear next to nothing about any of that generation’s leaders until the redemption neared. However, Jewish tradition does tell us that Miriam remained a continued source of inspiration to other Jewish women in particular, encouraging them to bear additional offspring in the midst of hardship and pain. By adhering faithfully to her vision of a brighter future, she infused her generation with deep trust in the coming redemption, to the point that they were prepared to bring a new generation of Israelite children into an otherwise intolerable situation.

Actually, it was not only the Hebrew women who required a healthy dose of Miriam’s encouragement. The men were generally not inclined towards propagation either, due in large part to their sheer exhaustion after a full day of back-breaking labor. Jewish tradition relates that their wives used copper mirrors to adorn themselves and also stimulate their husbands’ interest in intimacy, with great results. So central were these mirrors in achieving the holy outcome of bringing children into the world that they became worthy to be contributed as materials for the tabernacle that the Jews would later build in the Sinai desert.

The Jewish women had mirrors which they used to adorn themselves, and they brought them as contributions to the tabernacle ... God said: “These are dearer to me than everything, because through these the Jewish women bore many children in Egypt. When their husbands were exhausted from the toil of slavery, they would meet them with food and drink and decorate themselves with the mirrors... As a result, their husbands desired them, and they conceived and had children. (Rashi to Exodus 38:8)

Miriam’s inspiration to others manifested in other ways as well. Because of her unflappable faith, countless other women managed to think beyond their bitter reality and prepare for a brighter future filled with song and joy.

Miriam the prophetess… took the tambourine in her hand. And all the women followed her with tambourines and dances. (Exodus 15:20) How did the women of this generation know to take tambourines out of Egypt, when there was barely enough time to take food? The righteous women of the generation were certain that God would perform miracles in the desert, so they brought the tambourines out of Egypt. (Rashi ibid)

As one might expect, Miriam’s deep care for others sometimes got her into trouble. In one instance, she initiated a critical dialogue with her brother Aaron about Moses and his wife Zipporah. She condemned her youngest brother for abstaining from intimacy with his wife in order to maintain the requisite standard of holiness needed to receive prophecy. Prophecy was a regular, unpredictable occurrence for the Jewish leader, forcing him to be ready at all times. Miriam argued that she and Aaron were also prophets, yet they retained a normative standard of living with their spouses.

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the… woman he had married… They said, “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” And the Lord heard. (Numbers 12:1-2)

For her undue criticism of Moses, Miriam was afflicted with a special skin condition. She was cured following his prayer on her behalf. Because of her greatness, the entire nation remained encamped at that locale for seven days until she was again fit to travel.

What motivated Miriam to speak disparagingly about her brother, the one for whom she had sacrificed her life many years earlier? Based on her experience as a youth, Miriam sensed the possibility of a new threat to the cause to which her life was dedicated, the growth and perpetuation of her nation. What were to happen if every prophet were to follow her brother’s lead and separate from his spouse? Her concern sent her to discuss the issue with Aaron.

However, in this case, her love for Moses and the Jewish people had led her astray. In her role of older sister, she meddled excessively in the life of someone who was as close to God as anyone had ever been. Despite her great love and concern, her negative speech was disrespectful to Moses and, thus, disrespectful to her Maker.

Miriam’s life is a model of hope in the most dire of circumstances. She understood that the harshest suffering precedes the redemption that the darkest hour is just before the dawn. She is also remembered as someone who was prepared to challenge the status quo – even one established by the mightiest of men – in order to ensure that her vision came to fruition.

This last lesson that Miriam taught so well has resonated throughout Jewish history. Many individuals, women as well as men, have stepped up over the years and changed our communal and even national modus operandi because they recognized a need for change and were prepared to step forward to actualize their vision. This is true on the political landscape (including the many men and women who fought to establish the State of Israel) as well as a wide range of other platforms, such as the educational frontier. One such individual was Sarah Schneirer, founder of the Bais Yaakov movement.

Schneirer was born to a prominent Hasidic (Belz) family in late 19th century Cracow. She attended a Polish public school, while studying Jewish texts (with Yiddish translations) on her own at night and on Shabbos. Her education (often sans the Torah component) was similar to that of many Jewish girls at the time. Sadly, for many such girls, the combination of public school attendance and the lack of a robust Jewish education caused many to find meaning elsewhere, particularly in the many prevalent social and religious ideologies of the time, such as Communism, feminism and secularism.

Schneirer wrote about this dilemma in her memoirs. “(With our husbands and brothers away for the holidays at the court of the Rebbe, our homes are) bare of Jewish intellectual content. The women have never learned anything about the spiritual meaning that is concentrated within a Jewish festival. The mother goes to the synagogue, but the services echo faintly into the fenced and boarded-off women’s galleries. There is much crying by elderly women. The young girls look at them as though they belong to a different century. Youth and the desire to live a full life shoot up violently in the strong-willed young personalities. Outside the synagogues, the young girls stay chattering; they walk away from the synagogue where their mothers pour out their vague and heavy feelings. They leave behind them the wailing of the older generation and follow the urge for freedom and self-expression. Further and further from the synagogue they go, further away, to the dancing, tempting light of a fleeting joy.”

A seamstress by trade, Schenirer committed herself to girls’ education during World War I after attending a lecture of the Venetian Rabbi Dr. Flesch about Judith and the power of Jewish women to continue her legacy. After the war she returned to Cracow, ready to do the unthinkable. She would establish a private school for young Jewish girls.

Schenirer’s brother, a prominent member of the Belzer community, tried to discourage her. He insisted that her chances at success were slim. But she persisted. Finally, he agreed to take her to meet with the Belzer Rebbe. Upon hearing her idea of a school, the Rebbe offered her two words: “Mazel u’bracha” (success and blessing). Armed with the Rebbe’s support (and, eventually, that of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin,) Schenirer set out to found her school. In 1918, she gathered seven young pupils in a rented room in Cracow. Her endeavor was wildly successful. Within five years, Schenirer’s seven students had mushroomed to seven schools, numbering over 1000 students.

By 1933, just ten years later, there were 265 schools for Jewish girls just in Poland; nearly 38,000 students were enrolled. Schenirer’s idea had taken Jewish Europe by storm would become known as the Bais Yaakov movement. Throughout Eastern Europe, youth groups, summer seminars and camps also cropped up, with Schenirer’s influence and presence remaining at the center of the movement long after her death in 1935.

Schenirer serves as an unlikely symbol of women’s empowerment. She rose from an anonymous background and worked within the existing structure of Torah and social conventions to influence and preserve Jewish identity and continuity. Her methods were unique for a time that was filled with unrest and agitation for social change. Rather than wielding a picket sign or gathering the masses, Schenirer held a schoolbook and educated them.

Great leaders like Miriam and Sarah Schenirer possess the capacity to challenge the status quo that confronts them and recognize the importance of doing so. They are willing to think outside of the boxes in which they find themselves and take risks as they forge ahead. They question, speculate, experiment and advocate, all for the purpose of improving the lives of those around them.

Great leaders also inspire hope in others and create a shared vision of a better tomorrow. They recognize that the problems of today are ephemeral and can be overcome with the proper blend of vision, effort, desire and faith, just as they were for these great women.

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