Shemot: A story, which can challenge our assumptions

At the beginning of 2011, while protests were happening in Egypt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a joke did the rounds, which claimed that the Jews had warned the Egyptians that they would refuse to rebuild the pyramids if they got destroyed by the violent protests which swept through the country. This joke may be related back to this week’s
Torah portion in which we read that as the Israelites became numerous Pharaoh began to persecute them, and ‘they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses’.

This week we begin the book of Shemot, also known as Exodus, and the first of half of the Book as a whole focuses on the persecution of the Israelites by Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with their eventual escape from slavery to freedom. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are the bad guys at the start of this book. Pharaoh worried that if the Israelites continued to multiply one day they could be a fifth column joining their enemies in a future war. And so he responded by making ‘their lives bitter with hard slavery, in mortar, and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field; all their service, which they made them serve, was with rigour’.

And yet almost at the beginning of the book we get a short little story, which can challenge our assumptions about the Egyptians. Having failed to check the growth of the Israelites through hard labour, we read that ‘the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, and the name of one was Shifrah, and the name of the other Puah’. Pharaoh told them that when they were helping the Israelite women during their labour if they gave birth to ‘a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live’. The ultimate ruler of Egypt, a man considered to be a god, gave Shifrah and Puah a direct instruction and yet we then read: ‘the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive’. They even lied to Pharaoh to defend their actions.

In studying this story, the commentators have been primarily concerned by the identity of Shifra and Puah; were they Israelites or were they Egyptians who served the Hebrew community? In reading the text it seems unlikely that they were members of the Israelite community. For one, it is hard to believe that Pharaoh expected Israelites to kill members of their own people. But in terms of the text the statement that ‘the midwives feared God’ seems superfluous if they were members of the Hebrew community, but highly relevant if they were Egyptians rebelling against their Pharaoh.

Shifrah and Puah provide us with the first example of civil disobedience, but more importantly, they demonstrate that not all of the Egyptians were necessarily evil and wicked. As we read the first half of the book of Shemot it is easy to negatively characterise all of the Egyptian people, but Shifrah and Puah show that this was not true of everyone, they call on us to be more nuanced in our view of the Egyptians. And they set a secondary example as the first righteous gentiles, risking their own lives to save others.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Danny Burkeman) 

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Let us not allow “collective forgetting”

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)

Exodus – Kings and Gods

A few weeks ago, the film Exodus – Kings and Gods was launched and, in anticipation of the upcoming Torah readings about the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, I decided to watch the movie. I wanted to see how the authors of the film interpreted the biblical narrative. I was disappointed in the film in so many ways. I never expected to see a movie that was close to the bible’s narrative, and/or to Jewish interpretation, but in my opinion the film’s only goal was to devalue the Bible. The filmmakers presented a crude idea of a shizophrenic Moses who caused Israel to become insane followers of a cruel, child-murdering God.This film is not the first attempt at finding scientific explanations for the 10 plagues, and to devalue Moses’ prophecy as a kind of mental delusion. Usually, I don’t mind these attempts, as long as they respect and don’t vilify those who have a different understanding of the Torah. Unfortuantely this film has no intention of doing so.
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