Saturday, January 14, 2012

Shemot - The Women's Parsha

Here in Exeter we have just finished a wonderful Shabbat with Cantor Jalda Rebling from Berlin. Three services with a packed shul, everyone singing their hearts out, and even Bump (due on April 14) was kicking along with some of it! In good Jewish tradition, there was also a very large quantity of seriously good food.

Here was my contribution, written rather at the last minute, but I was quite proud of it!

Exeter, 14 January 2012

When I was asked to give the D’var Torah this week, I was furious. I had just finished explaining to the President of our congregation how busy I am at the moment with work, moving house, pregnancy and preparing to host the visiting service-leader. Had he not been listening? And so I refused. But then he threw in the secret weapon: “It’s Shifra and Puah”.

I called him lots of very rude names, but he had me, and he knew it. For a start, my Hebrew name is Shifra. But as a woman, as a pregnant woman, as a member of our community, there was no way I could turn this down.

The very start of this parsha is the powerplay of the Egyptian court, the rising paranoia and xenophobia of Pharoah and his councillers. Who are these Jewish people? There are so many of them! They might get bigger, they might join our enemies, they might leave and strengthen our enemies’ armies, they might, they might, they might… let’s kill them!

So much of the Torah concentrates on men. The fighting, the politics, who decided to move his family to where and who let his fear or jealousy lead him into behaviour that we struggle to see in a positive light.

This sedra is different. Not one, not two, but FIVE amazing women, committing acts of incredible bravery, forming a community of women that transcend society’s boundaries, getting on with fixing the mess that the men were making.

We start with Shifra and Puah, the two midwives summoned to Pharoah and told to kill all the Hebrew baby boys at birth. What a thing to ask – what woman would do this, and more especially, what midwife would do this? And yet this was the Pharoah of Egypt, who was powerful beyond anything we could imagine today. It’s worth noting that there is a possibility Shifra and Puah were themselves Egyptian; they didn’t even have the perspective of coming from a different community. No-one said ‘no’ to Pharoah, no-one disobeyed an order from him.

But they did. They went away, and simply ignored his decree, as if he were nothing more than a silly little boy behaving badly. They just got on with doing what they always did. So why didn’t Pharoah have them executed on the spot? There were plenty more midwives he could have asked the same thing of. He was the ruler of all Egypt, why did he ask for an explanation instead of making an example of them? Well, even a grown man can sometimes feel like he is 5 when faced with a disapproving woman. I love to imagine the ‘mummy look’ that Shifra and Puah must have given him, making him shrink into his throne and ask in a little voice “So…ummm…why didn’t you do as I asked?” And Shifra and Puah used his fear against him: “Oh, Hebrew women are different, they’re tough, it’s all over by the time we get there, we just clean up afterwards.” Pharoah couldn’t argue with that, it went along with what he believed about the Hebrews being somehow different and strange. And so Shifra and Puah not only excused themselves, but also ensured that Pharoah could never ask the same thing of any other midwife.

So then we move into the Hebrew community. Jocheved is faced with the horrific dilemma of what to do with a baby she can no longer hide. But rather than panicking, she decides to be proactive, to get on with what needed to be done. She puts her baby in an ark – a teyvat. The only other time we see that word in the Torah is in the story of Noah. Noah’s ark carried humanity into a new future. Jocheved’s ark held and protected the future of the Jewish people. And did Jocheved leave the baby and walk away, hoping for the best? Of course not. She left her daughter Miriam to keep watch, sharing the responsibility with the next generation.

Pharoah’s daughter is not named in this portion, but Midrashic tradition calls her Bityah. It’s good to be able to give her a name – she deserves one. She must have known that Moses was a Hebrew baby – in what other section of Egyptian society would a mother be driven to such desperate lengths? Bityah was part of the Egyptian court, which was apparently rife with xenophobic feeling, but she felt nothing but maternal instinct. Let the men worry about nationalist politics. She fell in love with a baby.

And Miriam, a slave girl, had the courage (and the bare-faced chutzpah) to approach a daughter of Pharoah, to have her own and the baby’s mother installed as Moses’ wet-nurse. I cannot believe that Bityah did not know that Jocheved was Moses’ mother. And so in the midst of all the killing, all the madness, two slave women and a princess united to just get on with it, to do what was needed to look after that baby.

Moses’ later compassion for the Hebrew slaves, even though he had been educated in the Egyptian court, is surely a tribute to his upbringing by Jocheved and Bityah.

Thanks to Jocheved, Miriam and Bityah, Moses learned leadership and politics in the Egyptian court, and grew up without a slave mentality. Thanks to them, he learned a respect for women and a hatred of injustice, which led him to break out of his comfortable existence at court, and helped him find an extended family in exile where he could learn about rural life – must have come in handy after the Exodus.

Moses was shaped by the women around him.

A community is shaped by its women – we recognise this in Judaism. We build Jewish homes for our families, and from those homes come the Jewish children who are the future of our community.

May we all have the courage of Shifra and Puah, the practicality of Jocheved, the chutzpah of Miriam and the open-mindedness of Bityah, to get past the politics, break down barriers, and just get on with building, nurturing and growing our community.