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January 17, 2020
20 Tevet 5780

Parashat Shemot
Exodus 1:1 - 6:1


Dear Friends,

We begin the second book of the Torah this week -- the book of Exodus, specifically Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1). After being reminded that a Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph, the first human beings that we hear about are two women -- two women whose calling it is to bring life into the world. They are named, which doesn’t always happen with women in the Torah. We do not know if they were Hebrews or Egyptians, but what we do know about them is that they were heroic and spoke truth to power.

We know that the central character in the book of Exodus is Moses. We observe him grow into a position of leadership and power even as he hesitates along the way. His journey is an epic tale, well remembered by most, especially as we recall many of those events not only in hearing the Torah read, but in hearing the story told at our seder tables.

But I simply cannot help being drawn to the story of the two midwives, Shifrah and Puah. Even as Pharaoh had decided to enslave this people who had grown in number in the land, these two women stood out because they spoke up.

But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites the various labors that they made them perform. Ruthlessly they made life bitter for them with harsh labor at mortar and bricks and with all sorts of tasks in the field.

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them.

Although the text refers to them as Hebrew midwives, all we know is that they served the Hebrew community. These two women, seemingly coming out of nowhere, had incredible courage./span>

They had the kind of courage that few among us have. Is it because of their work, which brought them so close to the miraculous nature of both life and death? Or is it because they were women -- healers -- that they were willing to stem the tide of hate and fear that was rising in Egypt?

Unlike so many other characters in the Torah, we know very little about them beyond their willingness to act. Yet, we do know their names, and by knowing their names, I believe that they are in our holy text to give each and every one of us courage. We do not need a burning bush to tell us what is right and what is wrong.

There is a piece in this week’s Jewish Week about a group of Orthodox women, wearing sheitels (wigs), who set up a table in Harlem with coffee and rugelach in order to introduce themselves to the community. This initiative has the single purpose of demystifying who they are as Jews. The last line in the article describes the interaction between one of the Jewish women and a Muslim woman , discussing the commonalities of an observant lifestyle.

Now, you may not think that this action takes courage, but I do. Any time that you cross a threshold that is new to you, your willingness is an act of courage, particularly when your reason for doing so is to reach out your hand or speak truth to power with the many other steps in between.

I am inspired by Shifrah and Puah's actions. I do not know if I have the courage to do what they did, going directly to the source of power, but I do know that I have the courage to cross thresholds to places that are unfamiliar and reach out my hand. Could you imagine if we were all able and willing to do that? Maybe we wouldn’t need to be Shifrah and Puah, who confronted an extreme situation created by the unwillingness of others to speak out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781