Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Shemot
Lost in the fights over who owns the Bible and how much of it God wrote vs. how much of it man created, some amazing stories get glossed over. Yes, we talk about the patriarchs and matriarchs, but too often, we treat them as iconic paragons of virtue and not human beings with real baggage and failings. Characters exist who get almost no airtime, but who play amazing roles in the way the story plays out and provide wonderful lessons into the human psyche and psychology. Bilcha and Zilpah are the actual mothers one third of the tribes of Israel (Gad, Asher, Dan and Naphtali). Leah and Rachel get all the credit, but only because they “owned” their handmaidens and had them get pregnant and give birth to the tribes. According to one ChaBaD writer, “Bilhah and Zilpah also had lofty souls, but not as lofty as the Matriarchs (ugh).” Perhaps their sons might feel differently?
Shifra and Puah are two other ladies who get a very brief mention and almost no follow-up in scripture. They are the midwives who defy Pharaoh’s decree to kill all the new born Israelite boys. They lied to Pharaoh as to why they were unable to accomplish the task and God rewarded them. And, we move on. Now, tied into this one episode we find myriads of commentable issues. First, they lied. Lying is not good, except when it is. Next, they were Egyptians who honored God. The Rabbis debate whether or not they could have been Egyptian, since many claim that the only gods Egypt recognized were Pharaoh and the pantheon he worshipped. Hence, if they worshipped God, they could not have been Egyptian (again, ugh). Does it really matter? They stood up to Pharaoh; either way it was a tremendously courageous act! And then, having stood up to Pharaoh, they shamed Egyptian women. They told Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are skilled as midwives; when the midwife has not yet come to them, they have [already] given birth.” Israelite women were better equipped for childbirth.
So, why is it that Torah goes on to simply ignore these ladies? As I see it, these two midwives may provide one of the most important lessons in character building. They did what they knew to be right, even while it meant taking on the Pharaoh … the “Human God.” If they were Hebrew, they were protecting their own people. If they were Egyptian, they were willing to risk certain death in supporting the “other.” They did not ask for anything special. After accomplishing their goal, they went back to their work. Their “reward” came to them; they did not seek it. And, more, because of their courage, we got Moses. But for their courage, we might still be enslaved in Egypt.
Seriously, are willing to stand up against even our own when we know that something is wrong? How many of us hear our friends family, or neighbors say something or watch them do something horrific, and then quietly pass it off, not wanting to cause a problem. No, we have to stand up, especially to our own, and help people see their own bias. Most often it comes unintentionally from a place of privilege or ignorance. Sometimes it stems from intentional and malicious bigotry. In both cases, as did Shifra and Puah, we need to take a stand. We need to call out the injustice and love people enough to help them be more loving.
Next week, we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a stalwart advocate for justice. Today, we remember the yahrtzeit (death anniversary) of his dear friend and ally, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel taught us, “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We have to stand up. We have to be counted. We have to change hearts and minds and, in so doing, change the world. Shabbat Shalom.