January 17, 2020
This week’s sermon on Parshat Shemot.
There’s a running joke in the American version of The Office where employee Dwight Schrute refers to himself as the “Assistant Regional Manager” and his boss, Michael Scott, corrects him by saying, “Assistant TO the Regional Manager.” While the ongoing semantic argument makes the two of them sound ridiculous and petty, the difference between the two phrases is NOT insignificant. Dwight wants to be called “Assistant Manager” because it means he is second-in-command, and therefore quite important. Michael’s correction indicates that Dwight’s primary function is to serve him, making him seem less important. Having served as an “Assistant Rabbi” for five years, I am familiar with this tension. I’ve lived it.
I make this very current pop-culture reference only because there is a similar debate in the translation of a section of this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. At the beginning of the book of Exodus, even before the birth of Moses, we meet the midwives, Shifra and Puah. These women bravely ignore the Pharaoh’s orders to kill the male infants when they deliver the Hebrew women, a plot that precedes Pharaoh’s decree to throw all Hebrew baby boys into the Nile.
In Hebrew, these women are called meyaledot ha-ivriot, the word for “midwives,” followed by a compound word meaning “the Hebrew women.” There is no preposition in the Hebrew. So we do not know whether these are “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives TO the Hebrew women.”
The rabbis differ in how they interpret this phrase. There are those that say that the midwives were Hebrew themselves (Rashbam on Exodus 1:15). This is corroborated by modern scholarship in both feminist biblical criticism and biblical anthropology: it would have made sense that midwives would serve their own community, as they play a role in the most intimate moments of a family’s life. A few commentators go as far as to say that Shifra and Puah were code names for Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister (Rashi on Exodus 1:15) or Yocheved and Elisheva, Moses’ mother and future sister-in-law (Exodus Rabbah 1:13). Some modern commentators, including me, don’t like this interpretation because it “limits the number of women involved in the salvation of Moses, and, by association, all Israel” (Tal Ilan, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 324). And in my opinion, we should give ourselves as many powerful women in the Bible as we can!
But there are those who suggest that the midwives were actually Egyptian, because, “how could Pharaoh expect Hebrew women to kill Hebrew babies?” (Abarbanel on Exodus 1:15). It is also possible that there was another ethnic group living in Egypt that played this role for the Hebrew women, perhaps another minority group that felt empathy for and solidarity with their Hebrew neighbors and thus “cast their lot with Israel and defy Pharaoh’s order to kill” (Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, p. 25).
Now I would argue that this semantic distinction makes an even bigger difference than it does for Michael and Dwight. Because if these are Hebrew midwives, what we are witnessing is two women—or groups of women—courageously risking their lives to protect their own people. But if they are midwives TO the Hebrews, it is possible that they are two women courageously risking their lives to protect lives of strangers.
Now unlike our modern example, one of these is not necessarily morally better than the other. In fact, in our own pursuit of justice, at times both kinds of action are required. Sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves, sometimes we need to stand up for our neighbors. And sometimes, we need to stand up for people to whom we bear no connection at all.
Rabbi Shai Held points out that what makes Moses the right leader for Israel is that his passion for justice knows no ethnic boundary. We see him prove this in the early chapters of Exodus, after the midwives and the women in his family save his life. First, we learn that Moses has discovered his Hebrew heritage and gone out to bear witness to his people’s suffering. Seeing an Egyptian taskmaster striking one of his own people, he becomes so angry that he kills the taskmaster. Soon afterwards, Moses sees two Hebrews fighting and tries to intervene before they hurt one another. The Hebrews, however, are not happy about Moses butting in, and say, “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” revealing Moses’ secret and forcing him to flee to Midian (Exodus 2:11-15).
Moses has intervened when an Egyptian was hurting a Hebrew, and when two Hebrews were poised to hurt one another. But it is in Midian that Moses intervenes when he doesn’t have a dog in the fight. Seeing that the male shepherds are harassing the female shepherds—the daughters of Jethro, priest of Midian— “Moses rose and saved them and he watered their flock” (Exodus 2:16-17).
Rabbi Held writes: “Why is it so important to the Torah to tell this story? The Torah wants us to know that Moses is not just offended by injustices perpetrated against his own people. Moses also defends foreigners and strangers, and ‘his passion for justice makes no distinction between nations’ (Jeffrey Tigay, Jewish Study Bible, p. 109). It is not enough for a Jewish leader to display ethnic solidarity—ethnic solidarity is surely necessary, but it is just as surely not sufficient. In order to be worthy of leadership, one must rebel against wrongdoing, no matter who the victim is” (Held, The Heart of Torah, Volume 1. pp. 123-4).
Rabbi Held connects this concept to a quote by ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was asked why he was also an advocate for women’s suffrage. Douglass replied, “When I ran way from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act” (Held p. 124).
We are, unfortunately, in a period of time in which we still find it necessary to fight for our own survival and safety. But the Torah tells us that justice will only be achieved when we are just as willing to put ourselves on the line to help people who are in no way connected to us, and for causes that in no way affect us personally. While we might always need to fight for our own rights, we will also always need to be allies.
In order for us to achieve justice, men will have to take part in ending harassment and violence toward women, and in fostering pay equity and safe workplaces in all professions and organizations. White people will have to take part in fighting discrimination against and oppression of people of color. Affluent people will need to consider the needs of those trapped in the cycle of poverty, and fight for their access to education, healthcare, and a fair wage to meet their basic needs. Straight, cisgendered people will need to consider the rights, the comfort, and the humanity of LGBTQIA people to be as important as their own. People born in this country need to consider the dignity of those who immigrate here or come here as refugees.
On Monday, we celebrate the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who was in many ways a modern-day Moses, leading his own people part of the way on their journey from oppression to freedom. But on the day that he died, he was far from home, fighting for better pay and safer working conditions for Memphis’ sanitation workers. His message was that that was also his fight, and that that is also our fight. And it still is our fight today, no matter what color we are.
We can, like the rabbis, argue through the night about whether the midwives were Hebrew or Egyptian or some other Near Eastern minority. But at the end of the day, the message of the story is that it does not matter. The midwives’ courage to defy Pharaoh’s order teaches us that, when it comes to women in childbirth and their babies, there is no distinction between Hebrew and Egyptian, there is no distinction between male and female. There is only human. Likewise, then and now, there is no distinction between “your problem” and “my problem.” The only distinction to be made is between right and wrong, just and unjust.
Rabbi Held tells us that “The word used to describe Moses’s actions on behalf of the vulnerable women [in Midian] is the same word used to describe God’s actions on behalf of the vulnerable Israelites. To side with the oppressed and act against injustice, the Torah subtly tells us, is to be like God…. Just as God rebels against injustice and embraces the stranger, so too must the divinely appointed leader” (Held, p. 124).
And as human beings created in the image of God, so must we.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz