December 30, 2004
Parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
Imagine yourself forgotten, without anyone to protect you. Ruling powers are oppressing you and killing your children. The purported
"reason" is economic, but a deep hatred based on mere difference underlies this attempted genocide. Helpless, you cry out. Who, in heaven and on earth, will hear your cries and move to save you? Awaiting relief, what do you do?
Now, imagine that you are privileged -- a son or daughter of the ruling class. Your life is comfortable, even luxurious. You witness the sharp contrast between your situation and the suffering of the underclass. They are slated to die, and your cooperation, whether tacit or overt, will help make it happen. What do you do?
This is not a theoretical values clarification exercise. It is, in broad strokes, our Torah portion. In Shemot, the Israelites live out the first scenario. A new king arises, who "did not know Joseph" (1:8). The Israelites are enslaved and afflicted; their male children are to be murdered. The motives are ostensibly practical: "Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and join our enemies" (1:10). Yet Pharaoh undermines the economic benefit of having slaves by denying them straw to make bricks (5:7). Ultimately, he sacrifices his regime and his life in a prideful effort to destroy the Hebrews. Against this senseless and murderous oppressor, our ancestors can only cry out. They fear that any intervention will make their situation worse (5:21).
According to the midrash, however, the women manage to maintain hope; they insist on procreation -- despite the death sentence against their sons. The challenge by women to Pharaoh's decree is established in the Torah itself: Moses' mother and sister are proactive, hiding him in a basket and returning him to his mother once he is discovered. The midwives may be Hebrew or Egyptian (the text is ambiguous). Either way, their civil disobedience against Pharaoh's edict to kill Israelite male babies is remarkably brave. If Israelite, the midwives defy everything about the status quo, asserting a power no one would dream of according them. If Egyptian, they risk their lives for slaves unrelated to them. Either way, their success in deceiving Pharaoh depends upon his dehumanization of the slaves.
The midwives evade their assignment, saying: "[The Hebrew women] are not like the Egyptian women; they are chayot [lively or, according to the midrash, like animals who give birth to litters] and deliver before the midwives come to them" (1:19).
This week's portion also imagines the position of the child of privilege. Pharaoh's daughter has compassion for a Hebrew baby and saves him, despite her father's decree. Moses, who grows up in Pharaoh's house, is filled with rage against the oppressors. Caring figures display mercy and fury, saving and killing, in response to genocidal acts. But individual action itself cannot, by itself, be effective. Nothing less than massive social change will suffice. Saving the enslaved requires miracles, battles, and the downfall not just of individual oppressors, but of the entire regime.
How well have we learned these biblical lessons? What would we really do?
Today, sadly, we have the chance to find out, because Pharaoh is alive and well in Darfur. The people of Darfur, like the Israelites, seem to have been forgotten, for they are without allies willing to protect them. The United Nations and our nation have failed to act quickly or decisively. The Janjaweed militia, aided by a corrupt and oppressive Sudanese regime, is persecuting civilians and killing children. The purported "reason" is economic, but a deep hatred based on mere difference underlies this attempted genocide. The goal is a land-grab -- ironic, given that the land has never been rich and is now ravaged by war and fire. In fact, an ethnic rivalry (Arab Muslim vs. African Muslim) seems to be at least as powerful a cause for violence as the lust for property. Women in Darfur are dehumanized, as they were in ancient Egypt. Rape is routinely part of war and of life.
Today, we Children of Israel, descendants of a slave people, find ourselves in the position of the children of privilege. We may feel compassion and we may feel rage, but what are we willing to do? Nothing less than massive social change will suffice. Saving today's subjugated peoples will, as in days of old, require miracles and battles. It will necessitate the downfall of both individual oppressors and entire regimes. To make this happen, we must follow in the footsteps of Shifra and Puah, midwives willing to help birth freedom even at the cost their own safety. And we must be sure not to fulfill the slave's worst fear: That inadequate intervention will make a hellish situation even worse.
Do we hear the cry of the oppressed? This week's portion is not about "them" -- or then. It is about us -- and now. To learn what Jews are doing and can do for the people of Darfur, visit www.jdc.org, www.ajws.org or www.socialaction.com, "for you know the soul of a stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9).
Author's note: The recent, massive suffering in Asia may eclipse, for some, the chronic pain of Africa. It's tempting to turn away from the affliction in Darfur because it is so awful to recognize that we have stood idly by the blood of our neighbors. Of course, we need to help on both continents. But, in the face of genocide, nothing should distract us from voicing, meaning, and enforcing the message "never again."
Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Encino (www.makom.org).