I’ve just come back from Limmud presenting for the Lyons Learning Project at a conference of learners totalling nearly 3000 people. Now I want to suggest that my mission within the Lyons Learning Project is in part to engender Jewish conversations about how and why to be Jewish in the 21st century – hence being at Limmud.
So let me give you an example, inspired by a panel of women rabbis which the Lyons Learning Project organised this year in honour of the 80th anniversary of the ordination of Regina Jonas. When Haaretz ran an article about her on the day of the anniversary (27th December) the first response I read blamed the faulty morals, as evidenced by the ordination of women in 1935, that led to the Holocaust. There is no accounting for some people’s idiotic theology. The women on the panel, chaired by Rabbi Julia Neuberger, were brilliant and I’m so pleased I got to hear them. That was my first source of inspiration.
Equally, in the same week, I was inspired by my supervisor, Dr Moshe Lavee (and his team) who has recently written about some amazing details in fragments of the Cairo Genizah, through his research project at Haifa University, where I’m studying for my PhD. Some of this research was written up for the lay reader on the subject of the midwives of our Torah portion this morning – a portion full of women who give life and save life.
But first I’d like to tell you a story, retold to me recently by a community organiser for Citizens UK, Daniel Mackintosh, I think it comes via the writings of Saul Alinksy the founder of community organising in the USA.
The parable is this:
A group of people are standing at a river bank and suddenly hear a baby crying. Shocked, they see an infant struggling in the water. One person immediately dives in to rescue the child. But right away another baby comes floating down the river, and then another! People continue to jump in to save the babies and then see that one person has started to walk away from the group still on shore. Accusingly they shout, “Where are you going? We need everyone available to help save these drowning babies!” The response: “I’m going upstream to stop whoever’s throwing babies into the river.” (A version taken from the White House website, by Gail T Smith)
Hold that parable in mind – the difference between offering a service to alleviate a problem, or changing the system to prevent the problem in the first place. The difference between social action and social justice. The difference between using our power and influence to put more services in place or to discover our joint power with those suffering to radically alter society. Given that choice, I know which I’d prefer. It doesn’t make me partisan politically, it makes me favour championing justice and equality.
But so to our Torah portion.
What makes our portion one of the most remarkable is the tiny seven verse vignette that retells the story of the midwives. It’s not exactly an essential component of the narrative and yet somehow Shifrah and Pu’ah, who save the Hebrew baby boys, have come to be written into the memory of our people as incredible examples of heroism.
Ramban, or Nachmanides the 13th Century Catalan rabbi, physician, mystic and commentator writes a commentary on Pharaoh’s words ‘Let us deal wisely with them’ that is frightening, disturbing, the sharpest reading of the misuse of power and description of the manipulation of the population for political gain, that any medievalist could come up with and all solidly derived from our narrative.
“Come let us deal wisely – Pharaoh and his advisors did not see fit to smite them with the sword, because baseless violence against the people would be considered a massive betrayal (or treason) against the people who came into the country at the behest of the former king. Moreover, the Egyptian people would not permit the king to enact violence like that, for it was with them that he sought counsel. (Even though the children of Israel were great and numerous and in the end he would wage a great war with them). But instead he said ‘let’s use the path of wisdom so the Israelites will not sense the enmity against them.’ Therefore he levied a tax, for it is the practice of the king to tax strangers in a land (just like Solomon – I Kings 9:21). After this he commanded the midwives in secret to kill the boys upon the birth stool, such that even the women bearing children were not aware what was going on.”
In other words, knowing that the Israelites had been invited by a former king, Pharaoh knew he would not have the support of the general population to start outright violence against them. So he begins by making life a bit uncomfortable for the Israelites and then enacts laws which deceive the women even in the intimacy of birth. At the moment of the miracle of life, Pharaoh in his deluded belief that he was god, takes life. And he does it in secret, to avoid rebellion and war – if no-one knows what’s going on it will just look like bad luck that the Hebrew boys are dying. He knows how to use politics, how to change the system for his advantage.
“After which he commanded all his people – any son should be thrown into the Nile river. The reason that he did not want to command his officers to kill them with the royal sword or that they would throw them into the river. Rather by speaking to the people and instructing them about any Jewish boy found to be thrown into the Nile, if the fathers of the boy cried out to the king or mayor of the city they could say that the father should bring witnesses…”
The next stage of oppression, in Ramban’s interpretation, is a continuation of the genocide by stealth. Gradually, in a state supported but responsibility free way, Pharaoh is able to murder and remain innocent. Incrementally Pharaoh, who knew not Joseph, is able to oppress and eliminate the threat of this ethnic population that has grown too numerous and powerful.
I read Ramban’s commentary as a description of totalitarianism and fascism with genocidal intent. From that perspective, Shifrah and Pu’ah are more than heroic, they become symbolic of resistance. And they represent the unswerving principled commitment to life that is at the heart of our Torah. They deliver life into the world and protect life when most vulnerable.
Our story, the brief interlude of nine verses, is a testament to humanity. In the face of the most perverted injustice, our sacred narrative teaches us that we must never sacrifice our commitment to humanity and to life. Before we even get to ‘our’ story we read about the risk and sacrifice of someone else’s story – two women who disobey the command of Pharaoh.
Now I want to ask you, how does the story of Shifra and Pu’ah intersect with our parable of community organising – the babies in the water? This is where Jewish conversations can be inspiring – thinking about these different intertexts. What situation might we reflect on, so that we are able to effect maximum change?
The heroism of Shifra and Pu’ah is inspiring, but delivery from slavery out of the grasp of Pharaoh is the only way to effect long-term meaningful justice and redemption.
So may the memories of all the Shifras and Pu’ahs through human history always be a reminder of our Jewish responsibility, our human responsibility to change the world and may this be God’s will (keyn yehi ratzon) and let us say: Amen.
 For example – the refugee crisis is one such issue. Let’s run a drop-in by all means, but here at West London Synagogue there’s one thing I’ve learnt and that is we have the capacity to be involved in trying to make a world where we don’t even need drop-ins.