Tonight We Breath, Tomorrow We Push– Shabbat Va-era January 24, 2020
By Rabbi Alyson Solomon
Tonight We Breath, Tomorrow We Push1
This Shabbat we find ourselves in the second Torah portion in the book of Exodus. Time, and the Jewish new year, is flying. In the book of Exodus, we transition from being a collective of Israelite families into a Hebrew nation.
In Hebrew, the book of the Exodus, is called Shmot, meaning the names. Exodus begins with the recollection of the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt, each coming with their household.
In reading these names I find myself feeling like I’m being rocked by a familiar lullabye … Rueven, Shimon, Leyvi, Yehudah, Isachar, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, the total number of the persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to 70 people, Joseph being already in Egypt. Joseph died and all his brothers, and all that generation.
But, Torah tells us in Exodus 1:7:
7 And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the
.land was filled with them וַיַַּעְצמוּ–ִבְּמאֹד ְמאֹד; וַ ִתּ ָמּ ֵל א ָה אָ ֶר ץ , אֹ ָת ם .
וּ ְב ֵנ י יִ ְשׂ ָר ֵא ל , ָפּ ר וּ וַ יִּ ְשׁ ְר צ וּ וַ יִּ ְר בּ וּ
￼We, the torah says almost in the voice of a narrator, the Israelites, were fertile and prolific, we multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. “Them,” being us.
And we can hear the sound track change,
ח וַיָּקם ֶמֶלך-ָחָדשׁ, ְָֹ
ַע ל – ִמ ְצ ָר יִ ם , ֲא ֶשׁ ר ל א – יָ ַד ע , ֶאת-יוֹ ֵסף.
8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph.
And he said to his people: Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join forces with our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities of Pharaoh: Pithom and Rameses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
Wheew. These verses. So stirring. So loaded. So full of illusions to our original creation story in Genesis… where the earth teamed with life. Here though, the tone is distinct. We Israelites are teaming and our very existence is seen as a flashing siren, a warning of threat. The more we increased, the more were inflicted with harsh labors, the more our life was made “ruthlessly bitter” the more we were hated and feared.
Sound familiar? Can you taste the horseradish and salt water? In some very disturbing and sad way, little has changed. We as an Israelite people are too often hated, not because we are a mass population, no, that scenario of us being a teaming people was tragically incinerated. Now, we are simply hated for existing at all.
￼Our world is yet again filled with malkai hadash, new kings who did not know Joseph. Our link, our relationship with those who knew and were in genuine relationship with Joseph, the ambassadors for forgiveness and reconciliation, mutual benefit and prosperity are few and far between.
We know the rising statistics of hate, bigotry and crude anti-semitism. Earlier this month in Toronto a swastika was drawn on the bald head of a 65-year alzheimer’s patient. The person responsible was arrested. But this incident we know is not an isolated occurrence.
Immediately after the Torah describes the verses of oppression in Chapter 1:8-13, the Torah teaches: the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and one whom was named Puah, “saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”
17 But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the boy-children alive.
ִמ ְצ ָר יִ ם ; וַ ְתּ ַח יֶּ י ן ,
ֶא ת – ַה יְ ָל ִד י ם .
יז וִַתּיראן ַהמיַלּדֹת, ְְֶ
ֶאת- ָה ֱאל ִהים, וְלא ָעשׂוּ,
ַכּאשׁר ִדּבּר אֵליהן מלך
The midwives, fearing Gd, Elohim!!, did not do as the king of Egypt demanded. The King summoned the midwives and demanded an explanation. Of course, we know the response, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, they are vigorous and before we can come, poof, they have given birth.” And Gd dealt well with the midwives, establishing households and abundance for them.
So what can we learn from our Torah? How can we live in this world in which the forces for hate and horror are everywhere and we as Jews, especially LGBTQIA+ Jews are under threat and harsh treatment?
I would like to offer that we take on the Biblical role of being midwives for life. That we speak back to Kings and Presidents, leaders and authorities who seek to diminish our presence and our existence. While some in our tradition identify, Shifra and Puah as Yocheved and Miriam, the soon to be mother and sister of Moshe, others say that they might not have been Israelites but rather Egpytian. Afterall, the term is Hebrew midwives – miyaldot ha’evri’yot – which could be translated as the Hebrew midwives or the midwives of the Hebrews.
Rabbi Yehudah Hachassid (Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg 1150 – 1217) believed that Shifra and Puah were actually righteous converts, as it wouldn’t make sense that Pharaoh would ask two Jewish women to kill members of their own faith and family. The medieval Midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni on Joshua 247:9 names Shifra and Puah in a list of righteous converts, further supporting the notion that they were
Either way you see these midwives there is enormous power in their existence. Their direct response, both verbally and of course in action is the first recorded case of civil disobedience in the Torah, challenging government in the name of a higher authority and also reminding us that religion, the religion of the midwives, was not about belief in the existence of Gd or any other theological concept but rather the belief that “certain things are wrong because Gd has built standards of moral behavior into the universe. As the Etz Chaim commentary points out, “The midwives not only believed in Gd but also understood that Gd demands a high level of moral behavior.”3
indeed Egyptians at first.
These first chapters in the Book of Names feel ominous to me. When we start reading Exodus I feel the world becomes a bit more precarious. I feel us begin to prepare for Pesach, in just over nine weeks. I’d like to invite us to start preparing now. To ponder over this Shabbat, how might be be like Shifra and Pu’ah. How may we respond to our political climate of unrest and contempt and advocate for life?
As further inspiration, I want to presence the sermon of lawyer and activist, Valarie Kaur. A young Sikh woman spoke four years ago at the Metropolitan Church in Washington. She was joined by powerful faith leaders from around the country: Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church, Imam Talib Al Rashid of Halem, Rev. William Barber of North Carolina and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Movement.
This gathering of faith activists was held after a 39-year-old Sikh man was working on his car in his driveway in Kent, Wash., when a man wearing a mask walked up and said, “Go back to your own country,” and shot him in the arm. This shooting came after an Indian man was killed and another wounded in a recent shooting at a Kansas bar after witnesses say the suspected assailant yelled “get out of my country.” Both incidents are being investigated as hate crimes.
Attorney Kaur, spoke about her grandfather “who left India and colonial rule to come to America only to find his brown skin and his Sikh turban were seen as a brother, but as a foreigner, a threat. He was thrown in jail where he languished for months until he a single man, a white man, a lawyer named Henry Marshall filed a writ of habeas corpus that released him on Christmas Eve 1913 4.
[Her] grandfather Kehar Singh became a farmer, free to practice the heart of his Sikh faith — love and oneness. So when his Japanese American neighbors were rounded up and taken to their own detention camps to the deserts of America he went out to see them when no one else would. He looked after their farms until they returned home. He refused to stand down.” Attorney Kaur, motivated by her grandfather’s experience and upstanding became a lawyer and preached the following:
“And in America today, as we enter an era of enormous rage, as white nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all-time high, I know that there will be moments whether on the streets or in the school yards where my son will be seen as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist. Just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls seen as someone else’s property. And when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, that incarcerate them, that kill them.
Yes, rabbi, the future is dark. On this New Year’s Eve, this watch night, I close my eyes and I see the darkness of my grandfather’s cell. And I can feel the spirit of ever rising optimism in the Sikh tradition Chardi Kala (ever-rising high spirits) within him.
So the mother in me asks, “what if?” What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears “You are brave”? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition?
What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love through love and your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.”
May this Shabbat the voices and the hands of the midwives and attorneys like Valarie Kaur be ours. May we be inspired to breathe. It is Shabbat. We must rest and renew our creative, disobedient, brave hearts so that tomorrow we may push. Tonight we breathe, tomorrow we push.
1 From the sermon by Attorney Valarie Kaur quoted later.
3 Etz Chayim on Sh’mot, 1:17, page 320