Rabbi Elizabeth Richman
Jews United for Justice
Shabbat Shemot 5777
3200 years ago, says the Torah, “a new king rose over the land.”
This king, this Pharaoh, does not know the Israelites.
וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ־חָדָשׁ עַל־מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַע אֶת־יוֹסֵף
This king, this Pharaoh, looks around his new kingdom and sees something he does not like:
People who look different from him.
People who speak a different language.
People with different names.
People who dress differently than he does.
This king looks around:
There are too many of them, he says.
They might be disloyal, he says.
Sometimes, the parasha is just spot on.
Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, sets taskmasters over them. He makes their lives bitter with forced labor. And when the Israelites continue to thrive anyway, the king calls for murder.
He calls in two midwives named Shifra and Puah. He tells them that when they attend the births of Israelite women, they must kill all the baby boys.
His command is breathtaking in its horror: the killing of babies. By midwives.
But miraculously, the midwives refuse.
Pharaoh gives the command and without pause the Torah reports that Shifra and Puah have calmly refused to carry out the orders of the most powerful man in the country, the man everyone believes is a god.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks famously calls their act “the first recorded instance of civil disobedience…”
Remarkably, this first act of civil disobedience is committed by two women who appear out of nowhere, women the Torah never mentions before, women the Torah never mentions again, women we know almost nothing about. We know their names, we know they loved God, and we know that they refused an immoral order. That is it. How did it happen that two unknown women stand up to the most powerful man in the world?
The ancient Rabbis grappled with this question, struggling to figure out who the midwives really were and why they would have defied the king.
Some say they were really Moses’ mother Yocheved and sister Miriam. Others say they were righteous Egyptians. Even Rabbi Sacks assigns them a spiritual lineage, saying they are the ancestors of Thoreau, Gandhi, and Dr. Martin Luther King.
But Shifra and Puah were not Gandhi and Dr. King.
According to Torah they weren’t Miriam and Yocheved.
We have no idea if they were Egyptian or Israelite or from another people.
And that is exactly the point.That the Rabbis even have to ask who the midwives “really” were is one of the most powerful things about this story.
The Torah’s answer to that question is that they were just people. Just people.
As ordinary people, Shifra and Puah must have been scared. How could they not have been?
That resonates with me.
I am also scared. When I look around at this city, our country, the world, at how much work there is to do to hold back the tide- forget about moving forward- I am daunted.
I feel small.
I am afraid that things have gotten so much bigger than I am that they’re really just out of my control.
I bombard myself with the same questions the Rabbis asked about Shifra and Puah: “Who am I, really?”
I ask that question even as a rabbi, even as a community organizer. And I know I’m not the only one who feels small in this moment.
So I have a proposal, for myself and for you:
We who think we’re small, we who feel that things are out of our control, let’s be ordinary the way Shifra and Puah were ordinary. Let’s be “just people”… together.
Shifra and Puah were medical professionals; they didn’t know from politics. But they used what they did know, the skills they had, not just to birth babies, but to birth justice. To birth the first step toward the Exodus, our people’s freedom story.
Like Shifra and Puah, I guarantee that EVERY. SINGLE. ONE OF US in this room- EVERY. SINGLE. ONE OF YOU- knows something or knows how to do something or knows someone who knows someone that will enable you to stand up for what’s right.
Maybe you’re a lawyer or a doctor. Maybe you build furniture. Maybe you’re a transportation expert or you know something about Ohio. Maybe you take great photos or are good at Facebook. Maybe you write poetry, make art, can cook a meal for 20 no sweat.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones and you already know what your secret expertise is, and how you will use it.
But maybe it will surprise you.
Maybe you will figure it out when you are told to do something that’s wrong. Or maybe it will be when something wrong is happening and you have the choice to “wait and see” or to say, “No, I will not wait. I will stop this now because I know it is wrong.”
And maybe you will need to learn or try something new. That might be exciting. Or it might be scary. It might even be boring. And maybe that too will surprise you.
The story of the midwives tells us that our job is to look for those moments, really, to create those moments, of synchronicity between what you can offer and what this world so desperately needs.
Look around. There are 800 of us gathered here this morning. Eight hundred spiritual descendants of Shifra and Puah with the power to birth the world we want to see. Eight hundred people with the power to author 800 new chapters of the story we are writing together.
What are you being called to do NOW, this week, this month, this year?
How will you create your own Shifra and Puah moment?
Will you hear the call from a neighbor or friend or parent or child or someone you have never met?
Will you hear the call when the king crosses the line?
Take a minute right now and think about one action you’re prepared to take, one commitment you’re prepared to make.
And then keep listening, because you are going to be called on in new and unexpected ways.
As you listen:
May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s light shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God be with you and grant you peace as you claim your rightful inheritance from Shifra and Puah, as you embrace your own power to birth justice, one action, one commitment at a time.