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Torah Reflections

Shemot: A Passion for Compassion

This week’s reading (Shemot) opens the book of Exodus. I am particularly fond of this one because it includes a group of courageous and compassionate women.

After connecting the end of Genesis with the beginning of Exodus, Shemot turns to the changed circumstances of the Israelites. A new pharaoh was in charge, and was worried about these resident aliens:

He said to his people, “Behold, [these] people, the Children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we are. Come now, let us deal shrewdly against them, lest they increase, and then, if a war should occur, they will join our enemies and make war upon us or depart from the land.” (Exodus 1:9-10.)

So he taxed them nearly to death, forced them to build storehouses, and eventually enslaved them. Apparently this wasn’t enough to subdue the Israelites to Pharaoh’s satisfaction, so he went even further:

And he said [to the Hebrew midwives], “When you help the Hebrew women give birth, see the birth stool” If he be a son, put him to death.(Exodus 1:16)

But the midwives–Shifrah and Puah–refused to obey him and thus provided us with what is, according to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, “…perhaps the first tale of nonviolent civil disobedience in world literature.”

Shemot’s Courageous Women

The description of the midwives in 1:15 is a bit ambiguous. The Hebrew can be read either as “the Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives of the Hebrew women. Most translators and commentators agree that they were Hebrew women serving other Hebrew women. But there is at least one tradition that follows the alternative rendering. Midrash Tadshe holds that they were Egyptian women. And if that’s the case, then their courage and compassion is even more astounding. They were responding to a moral imperative that transcended ethnic, religious, and national bonds.

In any event, Pharaoh was undeterred. Since he couldn’t count on the midwives to kill the boys at birth, he ordered his people to drown them. Presumably, at least some of the Egyptians did so, because Shemot includes the tale of a woman who attempted save her son. And in this narrative, we meet three more heroines: Yocheved, the child’s mother; Miriam, who sought to guard and protect her infant brother; and Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, who ultimately became the child’s adoptive mother.

Yes, the child they protected turned out to be Moses. But they didn’t know that. Shifrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Batya chose love instead of hate, compassion instead of indifference and courage instead of fear because it was the right thing to do.

Our liberation is bound in each other’s

In just a few days, I will join a couple of hundred thousand people for the Women’s March on Washington. The March promises to be on of the largest and most diverse in American history. We will be gathering “…to affirm our shared humanity and pronounce our bold message of resistance and self-determination.” I think our biblical heroines would have like that.

You may think that I am marching for political reasons and that this is a political post, but that’s not the case. I’m marching because it is, for me, a spiritual imperative. I simply can’t be the person I aspire to be and stay home. I can’t speak of the Sacred and stay silent.

In this, I am inspired by the life and words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  “For him,” his daughter, Susannah wrote, “politics and theology were always intertwined. After the civil rights march in Selma, he said, “I felt my legs were praying.” Even as social protest was for him a religious experience, religion without indignation at political evils was also impossible: “To speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous,” he wrote.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

I’ve been working quietly on various causes for most of my life. But it is clear to me that the time for working quietly has passed. I can no longer write or speak about God or Spirit or the Sacred and remain silent.  I can no longer prioritize my inner work over my work in the world. It’s time for me–and for all of us–to teach our feet to pray.

May you be blessed…

May you be blessed to heed the moral imperatives of our day. May your practice serve your actions and may your actions strengthen your practice. And may our hearts and minds and feet together be enough to heal our holy, broken world.

Ameyn, ken yehi ratzon. Amen, so may it be.

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