Minutes of Torah
The Torah’s vision of human dignity was radical for its time. Even more so in this week’s parashat Shemot, we find this primer on these unique responses to injustice to be acted out by women. Repeatedly we are confronted by these brave women: Shifra and Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, and the nameless Pharaoh’s daughter. Each responded to their experiences of injustice and human indignity with their own unique combination of courage, compassion and faith or “fear of God”. And each did it by using their keen sense of sight in their particular manner.
First, we witness the civil disobedience of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, against the barbarous Egyptian regime which sought to throw into the Nile, each male baby born to the Israelites. In explaining their refusal to obey this cruel and inhuman law, the text refers to the midwives’ fear or awe of God, linking their commitment to a universal law that superseded the unjust laws of the land of Egypt. Modern Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg calls this “fear of God” to be an “inspiration to a broader moral vision.”
After Moses is born and could no longer be hidden, Yocheved, Moses’ mother, sets him into the river, and, in effect, perversely obeys Pharaoh’s edict to “cast every boy into the river,” though she does it in hopes of preserving life, not destroying it. This too, is an act of civil disobedience to injustice.
Like her mother’s, Miriam’s was a unique courage — to negotiate with Pharaoh’s daughter for her brother’s safety and well-being. Miriam bore witness to the beginnings of Moses’ journey into the unknown. Bearing witness and truly seeing the “what is” of the world — or in Miriam’s case to see “what is” to happen to her brother Moses, is its own form of social justice work. As Elie Wiesel once said, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” — by becoming more aware of the plight of those around us, we will naturally be stirred to act.
Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the Nile and saw the ark carrying Moses among the reeds and sent her handmaid to retrieve it. When she opened it, she saw the child, a boy crying. She had compassion on him and said: “This must be a Hebrew child.”
Perhaps until that moment of seeing a crying baby boy, Pharaoh’s daughter had not questioned her father’s genocidal policies. But when she ‘sees’ the actual object of those policies, the humanity in her prevents her from complying with the policies. In looking at the child, she could not resist the vision of the Divine reflected in the baby’s face and thus had to act.
When we observe first-hand the sufferings of another, the walls of protection that we erect to prevent others from reaching our hearts, come tumbling down. In that event, we ‘share the burden’ of the other — perhaps the highest virtue to which one should aspire. “Sharing the burden of one’s fellow” is listed in the Pirke Avot among the ways to acquire Torah. We help others any which we can, whether the help entails physical strain, financial expense, or emotional strain. We feel the pain of the other and do whatever we can to help.
It is the ultimate manner of emulating God.
Moses eventually becomes the focus for most of the commentators for the conversation about social justice and bearing the burden of others, as he does so for the Israelites in Egypt and in the ensuing forty years in the desert. However, we must not lose sight of the female exemplars who preceded him — the midwives, his mother, his sister, and his adoptive mother. Moses is the inheritor of a way of seeing the world, and the other; just as we, too, are the heirs of Moses’ consciousness.
And as we reflect on the courage of these brave women, let us re-double our efforts to go out of our homes and places of work, and truly ‘see’ what is happening around us and discern whether there are needs that we had not ‘seen’ before. And when we now see these needs, let’s commit ourselves to ‘share the burden’ of our fellow — whether it be a relative, a friend, or a stranger. And by paying attention to this person, and bearing witness to his or her situation, we bring that person closer into our lives, and necessarily enrich both ours and theirs.