A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot • January 1, 2016
The playwright George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying, “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Language is a highly complex tool of communication. Even among those of us who speak the same language, considerable differences in meaning can be conveyed through accent, dialect, regional vocabulary, inflection, tone, slang, or any number of factors.
In recognition of all the college bowl games played at this time of year let us use consider the following example of just how difficult deciphering meaning can be: John Smith is an American football player. Does the speaker mean that John Smith is a citizen of the United States, who plays a game with touchdowns, sacks, and a frightening amount of concussions, during which only the punter and field goal kicker are allowed touch the ball with their feet? Or, rather, does the speaker mean that John Smith is an American, but the type of football he competes in is played using only one’s feet, with the exception of the goalie, who is allowed to use his or her hands in a game that we call soccer and the rest of the world calls football? Does the speaker mean that John Smith is from any given country, but that the type of Football he plays is “American football”?
Shemot, the first portion of Exodus that we read and study again this week, includes just such a linguistic puzzle of multiple meanings. The Hebrew midwives refuse to follow Pharaoh’s decree to kill every newborn male. There’s no argument that this is a brave, moral, and inspirational act of resistance. The question, as in the case of American Football player, is how we are to understand who and what is being described in the pasuk/verse. In other words, what on earth is a “Hebrew midwife”?
The positioning of the word Hebrew before the words midwives seems to support the interpretation that these women are themselves Hebrews. Hebrews is who they are. Midwifery is what they do. But all the other evidence runs in the opposite direction. Firstly, Shifra and Puah are Egyptian, not Hebrew names. Secondly, we have a political problem if we interpret “Hebrew midwives” to mean that they were Hebrews. Would this suspicious Pharaoh expect women of Hebrew extraction to slaughter Hebrew babies, their own nephews and grandsons? Pharaoh may be brutal, but he’s not stupid. Next, we have to grapple with the moral element of the text’s language. We are told that these women refuse to obey Pharaoh’s evil decree because they are “Yirah Elohim, God fearing.” Here Torah uses the generic, universal, creator name of God, Elohim, not the specific name for the God of the Hebrews, Adonai, to describe the midwives willingness to risk their lives and those of their families to stand up for what is morally right. They are not personally, or culturally, aware of Adonai. They are completely aware, however, of Elohim, fear of heaven, basic morality, common decency, shared humanity. They save Hebrew babies not because they are their own people, but simply because they are people. Finally, the text points us toward a moment of recognition, something which happens all too rarely when “women’s work” is concerned. God acknowledges and rewards Shifra and Puah for refusing to obey Pharaoh’s commands. The God of Israel would certainly expect, demand, and insist that Hebrews exhibit obedience to God’s word over Pharaoh’s. Refusing to participate in the infanticide of your own people, even under the threat of death, does not exactly merit the bestowal of gold stars and a place on the dean’s list in Torah’s typical point of view. We’re supposed to look out for each other. That’s one of the basic responsibilities of being part of a community. What’s remarkable and worthy of acknowledgement here are the all too rare instances when we look out for one another beyond the boundaries of belonging and association with any single group. “Midwives” are what these Egyptian women are. “Hebrew midwives” describes their specialization, the population they care for and serve.
The BBC series, Call the Midwife, is a powerful reminder of the physical, emotional, financial, and cultural challenges surrounding sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth. Set in the mid to late 1950s, the midwives in the series care for women, attend to pregnancies and deliveries, in a poor and working class community. They support a wide range of women: those who have planned their pregnancies within stable families; others who have become pregnant during the course of their work as prostitutes, minors who have found themselves unexpectedly pregnancies, victims of sexual violence, impovrished women who can’t possibly support their babies, and women deemed by the state as unfit mothers. The sisters and midwives are, at times, insulted, even assaulted by patients who are paranoid, destitute, frightened and alone. Without truisms, romanticization, or nostalgia the series illustrates how dedication to the needs of the patient and to the belief in the value of every human life keeps these women going. The narrator and protagonist of the series reflects: “I’ve gotten over the idea that we’re the heroes, the ones who deserve a medal. They are the heroes. These women are the ones who deserve a medal.”
May the actions of Shifra and Puah remind us that our convictions require us to take risks. If doing the right thing were easy we wouldn’t need theology, philosophy, or morality. Doing the right thing is almost never easy, simple or straightforward. Yet those of us who aspire to be humanists or God fearing beings must believe that being corrupted, co-opted, complicit or complacent is worse than being killed. Doing the right thing requires no reward, no medal and no prize, it is an honor in and of itself. For Shifra and Puah the reward followed their actions. No promise of reward or even protection was made before they defied Pharaoh’s decree.
As we begin this new year, approach the anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday, reflect upon the largest refugee crisis since WWII, and take stock of a rising wave of xenophobia in our world, let us remember that the designation, the term, the word that describes us most, the one that offers the greatest meaning, is not a description of our race, gender, nation, or creed, but rather it is rooted in the most basic, comprehensive and essential element of identity a person can ever have, being human. May humanity, the transcendent bond of being human, call us, like the midwives, to acts of courage, conscience and compassion.
May this be our blessing and let us say: Amen.