Standing with Shifra and Puah: Shemot 5778

Posted by on Jan 5, 2018 in Blog | 0 comments


Of late, I’ve begun to wonder if all Jewish texts—Torah, Talmud, Mussar, laws—have been written knowing we would need them for this time in which we live. Every week, when my Mussar chevruta partner and I sit down to study together, we find that each middah or character trait, is reflected in the behavior emanating from Washington—how NOT to act for the good: honesty, humility, generosity, kindness, awe. And each of our holy days: just last month, Chanukah reminded us that we need to stand up and be a light in the darkness of tyranny, and what tyrants look like.

Tomorrow, all over the world, Jews will read the opening of the book of Exodus (or Shemot), where we learn—again—that a new Pharaoh arose who did not remember Joseph. Joseph, we remember him: the one who saved his country from famine, who turned farmers into apparently happy share croppers, a Hebrew who rose from a false accusation of rape to the highest pinnacles of power.

This new Pharaoh was obsessed about an immigrant group who might become a fifth column collaborating with Egypt’s enemies, causing terror and death. Not people living south of the border, but the people living in Goshen, the children of Jacob, Joseph’s family, who had multiplied in their good living conditions. But this Pharaoh did not know Joseph—maybe he had taken down all the statues? And he feared the rapidly growing alien population. From that fear, rather than deporting us, he enslaved the children of Israel and set hard taskmasters above us.

And this went on for years. A long time. Centuries really. We, like our African-American neighbors, spent centuries as slaves. We submitted.

But then, this new Pharaoh heard a rumor, or so the midrash tells us, that a savior would arise among these slaves. We would no longer be safe in servitude. The Pharaoh called in the midwives who birthed Hebrew babies and gave them an order: kill the male Jewish babies at the birthing stools.

I try to imagine what it must have been like for these two women, Shifra and Puah, to walk from the community where they worked—the slave community—to enter the opulence and command of the palace, to stand—or bow—before the Pharaoh. Women were already lesser beings to these men, and these women, working among the marginalized, must have been especially less.

And yet.

These two midwives resisted Pharaoh’s direct orders to exterminate us. Imagine for a moment the bravery involved in that resistance. Their lives were surely at risk. But, the text tells us, they were in awe of God, and so they summoned the strength to resist. And good things came their way for sticking to their principles. But they had no way of knowing that at the time.

Shifra and Puah are said to have exhibited the first recorded acts of civil disobedience. They sparked hope that resistance was NOT futile, and together we could stand up against the Pharaoh, and maybe, just maybe, change would come. Maybe not immediately, maybe not at the first special election, but it would come.

And then, and only then (then being a relative term—after the Pharaoh ordered that all Hebrew babies be thrown in the river, Moses grew up, and escaped to Midian, and yet another new Pharaoh arose, so a few decades later…), the people cried out:

The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. 24God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. 25God saw the Israelites, and God knew. (Ex. 2:23-5)

Those two verses are a lot to unpack. God only remembers two other times in the Torah—God remembers Noah and later remembers Rachel. Remembering seems to be tied to helping out: landing the boat, giving Rachel the child she longed for. Here, in Mitzraim, the narrow place, to catch God’s attention required the cries of the people to rise up to God’s ears. [It reminds me of all the people of Bedford Falls praying for George Bailey on that fateful night in It’s a Wonderful life.]

But the remembering comes after God heard our moaning. And that moaning must have been terrible. Avivah Zornberg describes their lot: all those years of “grinding, senseless labor, losing one’s babies to the river, [was] to know the world as one where God seems blind and deaf and unknowing.”[1]

God had abandoned us. And we knew it; we understood our abandonment and we wanted something better. And somehow, somewhere, maybe because we saw how the midwives had fared in defying Pharaoh, we raised our voices in cries—that was translated into prayer.

And that’s when God heard us. It is as though God underwent a transformation—an unblocking—to be able to hear us. Rashi described it as God no longer hiding God’s eyes, but having to look us in the face.

Having to look us in the face, and see the reality of our lives. And from that seeing to then knowing our pain—that’s what happened. As God tells Moses at the burning bush, “I heard their moaning, and I know their pain.” (Ex. 3:6-7)

Ramban says this moment at the burning bush, when God acknowledges our plight, was the core moment in our redemption.

God had to turn to face us, to hear us, to see us, and that aroused God’s empathy. To see us.

How many times do we avert our eyes? How many times do we choose not to see? How many times do we close up our ears to the cries of others?

That’s the message I hear loudly this year as we return to this parasha. We must look at—SEE—the vulnerable, the marginalized, the ones in danger in our time—people of color, immigrants and refugees, LGBTQs, women. We must hear their cries. Because once we see and hear, we can’t help but develop empathy toward them, and, hopefully, we will remember our commitment to be a light in the darkness and.

We will hear the women talking about their moments of #MeToo. Most of us have a story to tell that doesn’t involve celebrities, just people in positions of power over us. And we will act.

We will embrace our neighbors who’ve lost their homes. We will be patient with everyone in the community, because we’ve all lost a sense of security.

And we will stand with each group that is threatened and pray that we all see how our oppression is individual and yet connected, and that none of us can be free until everyone is free, and injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere.

We will stand with Shifra and Puah and all who stand for the oppressed and the other. We will summon their courage, we will challenge as they did.

Back in the day—or 15 chapters from now, it took all of us, showing our faith, showing our courage, arguing, meditating, to come to the day when we could cross the Sea of Reeds to freedom. And it took a long time. It didn’t happen overnight. We were slaves for centuries, and Moses did not lead us to freedom in a week. We have to be willing to be in this for the long haul, to celebrate each victory on the way—dayenu v’lo dayenu—it is and is not enough, and to have faith even during the darkest nights that morning will come. And we will do that by looking, hearing and knowing.

If not now, when?


[1] Avivah Zornberg. (2001). The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus. New York: Doubleday & Co.

Submit a Comment