Parashat Shemot: Time to Speak Truth to Power Again

I have always thought that one of the most haunting and disturbing verses in the Torah comes at the beginning of this week's portion of Shemot. Exodus 1:8 reads: "Vaykom melech hadash al mitzrayim, asher lo yada et Yoseph", "A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph." The Torah imagines that despite Joseph's insight and intelligence which saved Egypt from ruin, somehow, over the course of its history, Egypt forgot that story so completely, that the new Pharaoh didn't know, understand or value Joseph's contribution to Egyptian prominence. Not only that, but his lack of knowledge led to the oppressive treatment and subsequent enslavement of the Jewish people

The verse disturbs me because it exemplifies how a nation's selective memory can lead down a destructive path for citizens and strangers alike. As much as the Hebrew slaves were oppressed, the Egyptian people were also impacted adversely by their leader's decisions and the ten plagues brought by God that afflicted every Egyptian.

The text explains that the Egyptians took their cue from Pharaoh who insisted that the Hebrews had become too numerous and steps had to be taken to rid the land of them: "And they made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; in all their service, wherein they made them serve with rigor." (1:14) The Egyptians did not need much convincing to set up taskmasters and inflict hardship on the Hebrews. We know of course how the story ends, since we retell it every year at the Passover Seder - we were saved by the strong hand and the outstretched arm: "In every generation we are to see ourselves as if we ourselves were liberated from bondage."

In these last weeks leading up to the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, I have been anticipating this text. I have thought about it when I read about the uptick in hate crimes since the election; I have felt it in the double standards regarding cabinet nominees and their required paperwork for the Office of Ethics; I have sensed it when Twitter has been used as the communication method of choice; and it has reverberated in my mind when I have seen what passes for experience, knowledge, and vision during the cabinet confirmation hearings. It's been hard to think of little else.

It is no small comfort to me that in the ensuing verses we meet Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who defy Pharaoh's edict to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys. Acting out of their faith in God and in their awareness of what is just, they strategically denied Pharaoh his orders. The Talmud (Sotah 11b) points out that the Torah doesn't just tell of their disobedience, but says, "they let them (the boys) live" (Exod. 1:17). The rabbis ask why the text needed to add that point, since presumably by their disobedience, the children were spared. They answer that the end of the verse teaches that not only did they not kill the boys, but they actively aided them to live, by giving them food and water (BT Sotah). The midrash explains that if the midwives saw poor women, they would go and collect food and water from the houses of wealthy women, which they gave to the poor ones, thus enabling them to provide for their children.

In reward for their defiance, the text imagines that God gave the midwives houses. "G‑d bestowed goodness upon the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. It was because the midwives feared God, that God made houses for them." (Ex. 1:20-21) In addition to the dynasties born to these women, the midrash imagines that Shifra and Puah actually became God's partners in creation, as they granted life to the Hebrew children (Shemot Rabba 1:19).

As enigmatic as these rewards may be, they make perfect symbolic sense. The seeds of redemption were planted with the midwives' strategic defiance against injustice, as their actions were about preserving life, and anticipating a future where all people would be free to dwell in safety. Shifra and Puah, spoke truth to power, did not normalize Pharaoh's decrees, and set an eternal example of civil disobedience.

As we anticipate the new Administration, let the story of the midwives serve to remind each of us that we have the ability to speak and act against any and all injustice perpetrated in the name of power. Let us not allow "collective forgetting" to penetrate and prevent holding fast the accomplishments of the last eight years. Each of us can be a m'yaledet - a midwife who helps to birth the future and bear the hardships on the road to justice and freedom, never giving up, always with the greater good in mind.