A popular complaint in my household is that the Hebrew day school I went to for 14 years failed to properly educate me about Judaism and teach me Hebrew. I definitely know more about traditions and halakhah, Jewish law, than your average Joseph, but since working at a Jewish media company, I’ve learned that there’s a lot my rabbis omitted from Rabbinics class (or, perhaps it went in one ear and out the other).
Under quarantine I’ve taken to reading the Torah — I host “And God Was Like,” a weekly discussion of the Torah portion for Alma — and the Midrash, the commentaries on the Torah. Say Torah again. Torah.
Having immersed myself in the scribes, I discovered my mother is correct: There is SO much I didn’t learn at Solomon Schechter Day School, particularly Exodus Rabbah, the Midrash for the Book of Exodus, AKA the Passover story. I combed through the long and dreary text and cherrypicked my favorite Passover facts you probably didn’t learn in Hebrew school.
1. Pharaoh’s Daughter converted to Judaism.
In Exodus, Pharaoh’s daughter, Bitya, finds a bouncing baby Moses inside a basket floating in the Nile River and adopts him. That’s the classic story. What you — er, I — didn’t know, is the real reason Bitya went to the Nile. Some sages say it was to rid herself of leprosy, but others affirm that Moses’ adopted mother went to cleanse herself from her father’s idol worship and convert to Judaism via the mikveh.
“Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you are not My daughter, but I call you My daughter,” God said to Bitya. (Lev. Rabbah 1:3)
For providing the savior of the Jewish people a home, God dubbed Bitya as one of the devout women converts, and allowed her to enter the Garden of Eden alive. Huzzah!
2. Miriam was a sex-positive Biblical babe.
Ah, Miriam. My beautiful Biblical babe. Beyond showing the Israelites how to be free after her brother Moses led them out of bondage, Miriam was a super sex-positive prophetess. Hear me out.
Example 1: Through interpreting the confusing timeline in the story of Exodus, the rabbis understood that when Miriam was just a young thing, she received a prophecy from God that her parents, Amram and Jocheved, would give birth to the man who’d lead the Jewish nation out of slavery. But her father, Amram, the leader of the Israelites, had separated from his wife Yocheved after Pharaoh decreed that all newborn male Jews should be executed. So 5-year-old Miriam told her father that they needed to get back together and start boning to fulfill her prophecy. Sex. Positive.
Example 2: In the wilderness, Miriam deduced from her sister-in-law’s moping that her brother Moses stopped shtupping his wife. All about female pleasure, Miriam went straight to God and asked why Moses couldn’t fulfill his duties as a husband, when she and Aaron, her older brother, could both serve as prophets and dedicated members of their family. Pissed that she spoke ill of Moses behind his back, God cursed Miriam with leprosy and grounded her for a week until the modern day eczema disappeared.
Moral of the story? Miriam was punished for being sex-positive, and in exchange for being God’s number one, Moses had to be celibate. Womp!
3. Pharaoh is a shady backstabber.
Pharaoh is a loser who would do anything to regain popularity amongst his people, including betraying the dude who saved the Egyptians from starvation — Joseph. Exodus begins with introducing a “a new king over Egypt, who knew not of Joseph,” but Exodus Rabbah tells us not to take this literally.
In reality, the aforementioned “new king” was the same pharaoh who ruled in Joseph’s time. Here’s what went down: Egyptians were growing scared of the Israelites and begged their king to enslave them. Being a righteous dude at the time, Pharaoh protested, and pointed out that they owe their lives to an Israelite (Joseph). Furious, the Egyptians staged a coup and dethroned him. After three months without his crown, Pharaoh crawled back to his kingdom and vowed to pretend that Joseph didn’t exist. He was restored to the throne, and God opened his Burn Book and added a new entry: Pharaoh is a typical selfish, back-stabbing, slut-faced ho-bag.
4. The prophets had a secret code word.
There’s only one way to tell the difference between a wannabe prophet and a God-chosen prophet: a secret code word. Tradition held that the savior of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage would use the word “peked” or “visiting” to indicate that God visited them. The code word was passed down from Jacob to his son Joseph, to Joseph’s brother Asher, and Asher’s daughter, Serach, who was alive during Exodus.
It wasn’t until Moses said “peked pekedat” that the Israelites believed Moses to be a prophet of God (Exodus 4:31).
5. The golden-calf gate.
When Moses went to Mount Sinai to chill with God for a hot sec, the Israelites had no idea where he’d gone, or when he’d return. To return normalcy to his flock, Aaron told everyone to melt down their gold jewelry and create the golden calf, later to be known as #GoldenCalfGate. The idolatry was a smack in God’s face, and he was pissed.
“Fuck it, I’m going to start over and kill everyone,” God told Moses. “It’s just you and me babe, you and me against the world.”
“Seriously? After everything you put me through, you’re just going to kill them? Count me out dude, and delete my name from the Torah,” Moses responded (or something like that).
Basically, Moses got God to chill out and only thwart a bunch of the Israelites, instead of all of them. Victory…?
That’s not all, folks. Not only did Moses make the Levites, the only tribe to be completely loyal to God, kill a bunch of disloyal Israelites, he also poisoned everyone in a super misogynistic way. Fuming from #GoldenCalfGate, Moses stared the Israelites down, destroyed the calf in front of them (I imagine this took, like, weeks of just being pissed and chiseling away at this calf), and strew the minerals into water to create a poisonous cocktail. The idea was that those who drank the mix and were guilty of idolatry would turn green, or something.
This gross mixture, known as the “ordeal of the bitter water,” is later known in the Torah as the “Sotah ritual,” which comes into play when a husband suspects his wife of cheating on him. At a trial, the wife was to drink the bitter water, and if the accusation was based in truth, the poison would make her “thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell” and she’d be consumed with bitterness.
What happens to a man suspected of adultery? Zilch.
6. Moses was born circumcised and super glowy.
Lucky for Moses, there was one Jewish ritual he evaded — the bris. But that’s only because he was born without a foreskin. In Exodus Rabbah (1:20) the Rabbis explain that God hand-picked Moses while in the womb and sliced and diced his member pre-birth.
Jocheved, Moses’ mom, was super old when she gave birth to her son, but being a righteous woman, God blessed her so she didn’t “share the fate of Eve” and had no pain during labor. Not only that, when Moses was born he glowed like baby Hercules in Disney’s Hercules. Between the godly glow and circumcision, it was clear to Jocheved that Moses was destined for greatness, and to his adopted mother Bitya that he came from a Jewish mother.
7. The three shepherds weren’t allowed in Israel.
I think it’s pretty messed up that God forbade the three prophets from entering the land of Israel. Miriam botched her opportunity when she committed lashon hora, AKA gossip, against her brother Moses. As for her brothers? They were banned after Moses hit a rock instead of talking to it.
I’ll explain. After Miriam died, the well that kept the Israelites hydrated throughout their voyage in the desert/wilderness dried up. Super thirsty, the nation complained, as they do, leading Moses to ask God WTF he should do. God told him to whisper sweet nothings into this rock’s ear, but Moses, pissed that his sister literally just died, hit the rock instead. Zilch. Nada. Absolutely nothing happened. So he hit it again. And BOOM, water overfloweth! But God was, as per usual, pissed. Classic. “You were supposed to TALK to the rock, not HIT it, dumbass,” he said to Moses. And that’s why Moses and Aaron weren’t allowed in Canaan. Sad!
8. The staff in the stone.
The staff that Moses used to part the Red Sea, and to perform, like, a bajillion other miracles, has a Disney backstory. And by Disney I mean The Sword in the Stone, an animated movie based on the legend of King Arthur. Back in the Garden of Eden, Adam, God’s first claymation, used a staff, for, literally, God knows what. That staff was passed down to Noah, to Abraham, to Isaac, and then Jacob gave it to his son Joseph. After Joseph died, Jethro, a priest of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law, planted the staff in his garden. Like the sword in the stone, it was impossible to pull the staff out of the garden, which had God’s “Holy Name” inscribed on it.
After Moses killed a dude in Egypt, he fled to Jethro’s town, rolled up to his garden, and pulled the staff out of the earth like nobody’s business. Seeing he was a righteous dude, Jethro gave Moses his wife, Tzipporah. Win!
9. Pharaoh tried to shtup Moses’ mom and sister.
Ew. I KNOW. So gross. In the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh tells the Hebrew midwives, Shiphra (Yocheved) and Puah (Miriam), that they must kill all Jewish baby boys. Being the God-fearing women that they are, the midwives refused to adhere to his order.
“But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt spoke about them [aleihen], but they kept the male children alive.”
Note: This interpretation actually comes from the Gemara, which is the record of Rabbinic discussion following the Mishnah, the original written version of oral law.
Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Hanina, says that this passage teaches us that Pharaoh asked Shiphra and Puah to have sex with him, but they refused. How did he arrive to that conclusion!? Apparently, the Hebrew word “aleihen” is usually used in the Torah to refer to sexual intercourse. And there you have it!
Image by duncan1890/ Getty Images; Grace Yagel