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Shemot: Fear and Moral Courage


January 8, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Shemot.

On a conference call on Wednesday morning, my colleague Rabbi Heather Miller gave a wonderful d’var Torah on the concept of fear in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. Anxious about the Georgia runoffs and the certification of the electoral college vote, I knew I’d be sharing some of her teaching this Shabbat. But the horrific events of Wednesday afternoon made her words all the more prescient and relevant.

In this week’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus, we encounter two diametrically opposed manifestations of fear. First, we have the new Pharaoh, the one who does not know Joseph and therefore fears his descendants, saying, “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” (Exodus 1: 8-10).

This kind of fear, and its repercussions, has been all too familiar to us over the past few years. In Exodus, we have a leader who fears the shifting demographics of his country. He fears this people who he “does not know,” and he fears the uncertainty that comes with change. He worries about being overpowered by an ethnic minority who came to his country seeking a better life. According to Rabbi Miller, the new Pharaoh “leads from fear,” responding in progressively terrifying ways: First, he subjects the Israelites to harsh labor; next, he attempts to enlist their midwives into a covert mission of infanticide; and finally, he openly decrees that the Israelites’ newborn boys must be thrown into the river.

None of these fear-induced policies are ultimately effective. Several of them are undermined by the very people he’s enlisted to help him, and some of them actively contribute to his downfall.

Which brings us to some of my favorite biblical heroines: the midwives to the Hebrew women (whether or not they were Hebrew themselves is the topic of tomorrow’s Torah study). Pharaoh orders them to surreptitiously murder the baby boys they deliver to the Hebrew women, hoping to prevent a future rebellion. But the rebellion is already underway. The midwives do not heed this order. According to the Torah, their reasoning is also grounded in fear: “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17).

In our modern, progressive community, the idea of “fearing God” doesn’t always resonate with us. We don’t like to think of our behavior, or our faith, as being rooted in fear.

But the midwives’ “fear of God” is a different kind of fear entirely. Had the midwives, like Pharaoh, been leading from a place of fear, the most likely object of that fear would have been Pharaoh himself. He had the power to fine them, imprison them, cause them physical harm, or even execute them. But the midwives don’t act as if they fear him—later they even lie to his face to cover up their own disobedience.

Rabbi Miller explains that “fearing God” here refers to the following question: “to whom are we accountable?” The midwives don’t fear Pharaoh’s power, even though it is very real, because they know that they answer to a higher authority. In the short term, they are accountable to the women, children, and families they serve, and to their calling as midwives.

Yael Shemesh of Bar Ilan University writes that: “The motivation of the Hebrew midwives to disobey Pharaoh’s orders and save lives stemmed not only from their being women, but also from the fact that their profession is intrinsically associated with bringing new life into the world, not destroying it.”

In the longer term, the midwives recognize that they are accountable to God, and to a morality that transcends who is in charge of their country, or their livelihood, at any given moment.

This doesn’t change the medium-term threat of Pharaoh’s wrath. To fear God, then, instead of Pharaoh, took a certain kind of courage.

Just as fear can be both a productive and destructive element of leadership, so, too, can courage. Rabbi Amy Eilberg writes that: “On the one hand, timidity in the face of moral challenge means that we miss opportunities to partner with God in the work of perfecting the world….On the other hand, the call for justice can be an adrenaline surge, a rush of angry energy born of psychological components, disconnected from the people on whose behalf we wish to act” (The Mussar Torah Commentary, p. 87).

So if the nature of our fear can be defined by whom we are accountable to, the nature of our courage might be defined by on whose behalf we are acting.

If today’s leaders were to examine and interrogate their choices and their actions, and the nature of the fear and the courage behind them, they might ask themselves these questions:

  1. To whom do I hold myself accountable? Is it this country, to the constitution, and to my constituents? Or is it to my donors, to my cronies, and to whomever it is politically expedient to support?
  2. For whom am I taking this action? Am I doing this for the people I represent and the institution I serve? Or am I doing this for my own self-interest and self-aggrandizement?

Countless times in our nation’s history, we have seen our leaders act out of the wrong kind of fear and the wrong kind of courage. We’ve seen it many times just this week.

It is the wrong kind of fear that has conservatives and white supremacists challenging any form of progress that would give more power to women, minorities, and people of color.

It is the wrong kind of courage that has the president inciting his supporters to attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election through hateful rhetoric, coercion, destruction, and violence.

It is the wrong kind of fear that has law enforcement treating armed white insurrectionists with more civility than peaceful black protesters.

And it is the wrong kind of courage that has rioters feeling justified in breaking into the Capitol, destroying federal property, and vandalizing government offices, so much so that they posed for photographs while they were doing it.

What must we do in the face of this misguided fear and misappropriated courage? We can demand leadership that acts out of the right kind of fear and the right kind of courage. We can remind our leaders that they are accountable to our citizens and to the principles on which our nation stands. We can recognize and reward the leaders who show real moral courage. And we can make sure our own words and actions in response to these events are guided by real moral courage as well.

The heroism of the midwives took a great amount of moral courage. But at the end of the day, they did not have to do anything new or extraordinary to defeat the Pharaoh. They did what they already knew how to do, what they did every day: support women, deliver babies, and keep them both safe.

Likewise, we have seen, even in this devastating week, that often, true moral courage is showing up and doing our job, in the face of harsh criticism and even danger. The voters going to the polls, the senators returning to the floor to certify the election results in the middle of the night, the congressional aides who protected the boxes containing the electoral college votes, and the journalists who covered these events as they were unfolding.

It has been difficult for me to find words of comfort to share with you this week. But I do take a great deal of comfort in the fact that the vast multitude of everyday people who showed up to do their jobs were not defeated by the raging few who tried to dismantle their efforts. This gives me hope. This gives me courage.

However subtle and secretive the midwives’ act of disobedience, it almost doesn’t make sense how their story ends. We would expect them to be punished for betraying Pharaoh. Instead, we learn that, “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, God established households for them” (Exodus 1:20-21).

In these tumultuous times, it is essential to remember that we are the spiritual descendants of that people and those households. We have the power, and the responsibility, to uphold our democracy through our own daily actions. May we, like the midwives, act from a place of accountability and moral courage. And may we continue to work towards a future in which our leadership does the same.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz