Parshat Shmot 2018
As we begin the second book of the Torah, we see that many of the themes in our parsha serve as a prototype for our history down to this day, for the good and the bad. We have the false charges of treason, based in part on jealousy of the success of the Hebrews. We of course have an arch-villain in Pharaoh. We have a leader, Moshe, whose shoes remain empty most of the time today. We have the masses who may or may not have acquiesced in the dastardly plans and edicts of the villain. And we have the heroes, in this case mostly heroines, who defy evil edicts and risk their lives for what are totally altruistic reasons at times. From these stories we can formulate some general rules.
The first step in inciting a population against a specific people is to delegitimize them. Pharaoh, our villain, does not remember Yosef. Such forgetfulness is theoretically possible – if this Pharaoh is an outsider who invaded and conquered Egypt. Which gives us rule number 1: in antisemitism or anti- any other group, facts do not matter. The big lie, repeated often enough, becomes truth. BDS, the rising antisemitism in Russia, Europe and even the United States are but two examples today.
Rule number 2 is that any good done by a group is negated and invalidated by the need for a scapegoat. In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when the Jewish organization is plotting against the Romans they ask, What have the Romans ever done for us? And the answer is: “Nothing,” except perhaps for: roads, water works, health facilities, education and safety, to name but a few. But they do not count!
For a villain to succeed, he needs the support of the people as a whole. The rabbis point out that when the edict was given to gather straw for making the bricks, the Hebrews had difficulty finding straw. This may very well have been because the Egyptians made it difficult. If a guy is down, give him a kick while you have the chance.
So rule number 3 is that the people will go along with almost anything they are told either because they don’t want to make waves (which could drown them) or because they don’t really care what happens to someone else.
But shining through our parsha, especially at the beginning, is the behavior of certain individuals who for whatever reason buck the tide and adhere to higher principles. Interestingly, most of them in our parsha are women.
We begin with two midwives, Shifra and Puah. They may actually have been Egyptians who served the Hebrews, or they were Hebrews themselves. Either way, they risked their lives by not killing the male infants.
Then there is Yocheved, a Levite woman who takes a chance, has a boy (she knew of the edict to toss all boy infants into the Nile) and then keeps him. That act can also qualify as stupid, of course, but we won’t go there.
Immediately after this we have two women who show courage above and beyond anything we have seen, but they do it so matter-of-factly that we can skim over the story without realizing how great their actions are.
I am referring of course to the daughter of Pharaoh, and to the baby’s older sister. The daughter of Pharaoh recognizes the baby in the basket as a Hebrew child, yet disobeys her father’s edict and saves him. The baby’s older sister, Miriam, is brazen enough to go up to the daughter of Pharaoh and without any preamble or show of respect for royalty, offers to find a wet nurse for the child.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out, both women are taking a great risk. They both know that using the baby’s mother as a wet nurse is the best way to assure no leaks so that both the savior, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the baby’s family will be safe.
Why Pharaoh’s daughter acted as she did is never explained. Just as the actions of individuals during the Holocaust who risked their lives to save Jews are rarely explained. So rule number 4 is that in almost any hopeless situation there will be those who hold themselves to a higher standard.
Thus we can see that many of the major themes of Jewish history are here in our parsha. How fortuitous (I won’t say coincidental) that this week we learned that our leaders have decided to impose another election campaign on us. This in itself is a form of punishment not mentioned in the Torah, not even in the tochecha.
What we have to ask ourselves as we gird our loins for the onslaught of bad-mouthing, name-calling, shaming, fake news and simple dirty politics – is this: who out there is adhering to higher principles? And who of the leaders who would have us believe that they are worthy of leading our country actually have worthy principles and a coherent view of what has to be done not only to ensure our security (which all of them will do), but also to heal the many rifts in our country. And to allocate enough resources to the social and economic aspects of running a country. Not an easy task.
One thing, though, is sure. None of our leaders have the hesitations about leading our nation that Moshe repeatedly voiced in our parsha.
We are in for a dizzying three and a half months until election day.