Put a Mirror on Your Seder Table

Lizzy Shaanan Pikiwiki Israel
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Leah Sarna

This is the year to tell the stories of enslaved Jewish women.

Every year, Jews around the world sit around their seder tables and tell stories of our slavery in Egypt. The Haggadah describes the point of these gatherings: “a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.” We tell these stories in order to weave ourselves into them – women too, for we were also part of the miracle.

But what was slavery like for those women? The Haggadah and even the Exodus narrative itself only provide hints. In previous years I didn’t notice the absence.

This year we all know better. We know that women on October 7th were treated differently from male victims, subjected to rape and sexual exploitation. Even the United Nations envoy focusing on sexual violence has confirmed that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Hamas continues to inflict rape and sexualized torture against the remaining female hostages.

The Torah’s story provides scant detail about the female experience. We know that mothers had their boys ripped from their arms and thrown into the Nile. We also know that those bereft mothers were then available as wet nurses. Pharaoh’s daughter does not think twice about giving her new son to a Hebrew wet nurse.

The Haggadah contains more: wives and husbands, forcibly separated – perishut derech eretz. The Midrash adds another level of color. It notes that only baby boys were thrown into the river, and asks: “Why did Pharaoh need to keep the females alive?” Here is the response: “This is what they would say: ‘We will kill the males and take the females as wives,’ because the Egyptians were engulfed with lewdness” (Shemot Rabbah 1:18).

Because the Egyptians were engulfed with lewdness.

Three non-conflicting stories begin to emerge. One: Jewish women and Jewish men were forcibly separated, perhaps so that Jewish women would be sexually available to Egyptian men. When they birthed daughters, the Egyptian enslavers permitted the girls to live so that they too might grow up into sexual slavery. The Midrash records that the Israelite women fought against Egyptian lechery with success, saying that “the Lord will testify” that they defended themselves from adultery (Bamidbar Rabbah 9:14). But they had to fight for it, and their success is astonishing. That same Midrash puts this surprise into the voice of “the nations,” who claim about the Israelites in the desert: “Are they not the children of the Egyptians? Were not the women enslaved in Egypt just as the males were enslaved?” These “nations” assume that slavery for women meant rape – making their children “the children of the Egyptians.” The Midrash refutes this claim, but by raising the question even only in the voice of “the nations,” the midrashic authors express how unusual, even miraculous, it is that the Jewish women were able to evade the Egyptian men. The Torah only names one Jewish woman who conceived with an Egyptian man: Shelomit bat Divri. Rashi (Leviticus 24:11) spells out the implication: she was the only victim. Every other child born to an Israelite woman in Egypt had an Israelite father.

Two: When the enslaved Jewish women birthed sons, the sons were killed, and the postpartum mothers, without babies of their own to nurse, were available in ready supply as wet nurses to Egyptian babies.

And what were these women doing with the rest of their time? Three: The Midrash also tells us (Shemot Rabbah 1:11) that “they would exchange the labor of men for women and the labor of women for men.” Those women were working in hard physical labor.

Over and above the details of their enslavement, our midrashim are awash with stories about Jewish women in Egypt fighting to create Jewish babies. Rabbi Akiva says that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt on the merit of these righteous women, the nashim tzidkaniyot (Shemot Rabbah 1:12). The wives crept out to the fields where their husbands were forced to sleep. They brought them food to eat, and then used mirrors to seduce them. The Midrash tells the details of this seduction (Tanhuma, Pekudei 9:1): “The women would say: ‘I am more attractive than you,’ and the men would reply: ‘I am handsomer than you.’”

In light of the above, the heroism of this story is even more apparent. These exhausted and terrified women looked in their mirrors and tried their hardest to feel beautiful, even after they had been threatened and terrorized by their Egyptian oppressors. They could look at themselves in these mirrors, find healing in their reflection, and initiate sex with autonomy, control, and a joyful tease of “I am more attractive than you!” Once freed, the women donated those mirrors to the Tabernacle, which became a part of the  laver for washing (Exodus 38:8) – because the mirrors were already a source of purity. These mirrors had purified these heroic women of the traumas of Egyptian lechery, allowing them to take charge of their own sexuality for long enough to copulate with their husbands and ensure the perpetuation of the Jewish people.

For our female hostages, today’s reality is worse than what our foremothers faced in Egypt. In Egypt, nearly all of the Jewish women could (perhaps miraculously) avoid the sexual advances of their enslavers. The nashim tzidkaniyot in Egypt were, in a way, the lucky ones. In nearly every other instance of Jewish oppression since those times, including today’s, this has not been the case.

One focus of the Seder night is that Jewish history repeats itself. But that does not mean that Egyptian slavery was the singularly worst thing that has ever befallen the Jewish people. At many junctures in Jewish history, Jews have had it worse than we did in Egypt. The Israelites in Egypt were neither hungry, thirsty, nor homeless. They had medical care. From the perspective of the newly-freed slaves, life as free wandering nomads in the desert could well be worse than their slavery. They couldn’t even imagine what horrors would befall their descendants. In a prayer composed to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the Seder, the authors describe the Nazi oppressors as “seventy times worse than Pharaoh.”

In the middle of telling the story on the Seder night, we raise our glasses in a toast, commemorating that “in each generation, they stand against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.” Hamas, and their global sympathizers, are only the latest iteration. With hostages still held and enslaved in Gaza, and with Israel still at war, this year, as we give thanks for the past, we will also re-cast this statement as a demand: rescue us now, again.

The real story of the nashim tzidkaniyot past and present is not a child-friendly story, but it is one that all adults in our community must know and internalize as a co-equal part of our Passover story, as we remember past redemptions and pray for a current one. Even if you cannot tell this story at your Seder, I want to recommend that you put a mirror on your table. When you look at it, remember the suffering of our righteous female ancestors, and remember that, through these mirrors, their autonomy was miraculously returned to them. Recall the historic suffering and endurance of Jewish women past and present, and let us hope and pray that that same healing will someday be found by our brothers – and especially sisters – in Gaza being tortured today.

Leah Sarna is the spiritual leader of Kehillat Sha'arei Orah in Lower Merion, PA and on the faculty of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. Ordained at Yeshivat Maharat in 2018, she holds a BA from Yale University in Philosophy & Psychology and also trained at Migdal Oz and the Center for Modern Torah Leadership. Sarna is a recipient of a Covenant Foundation Pomegranate Prize and a Wexner Graduate Fellowship, and she is now a member of the Sefaria Word-By-Word Jewish Women's Writing Fellowship. Her published works have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Lehrhaus and The Jewish Review of Books and she has lectured in Orthodox synagogues and Jewish communal settings around the world. She loves spreading her warm, energetic love for Torah and Mitzvot with Jews in all stages of life. For more information or to be in touch: