One of the most haunting and alarming verses in the Torah comes at the beginning of this week’s portion of Sh’mot: “A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph”(Ex 1:8). The Torah imagines that despite Joseph’s insight and intelligence which saved Egypt from ruin, 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 is disturbing 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. 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.
Reflecting on the past year 2017, I have been anticipating this text. I have thought about it when I read about the uptick in hate crimes; I have felt it in the double standards regarding politics towards Israel; and it has reverberated in my mind witnessing the rise of right wing and populist politicians all over the world. It’s been hard to think of little else.
It is no small comfort to me that in the subsequent verses we read in our Torah portion we meet Shifra and Puah, the 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’s 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 rabbis 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 Tikkun Olam 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.
As we anticipate the new Year, 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. Let us not allow “collective forgetting”. Each of us can be 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.
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat and a happy (secular) New Year
Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source Rabbi Yael Ridberg)