Being on the Right Side of (Repeated) History
Shemot שמות (“Names”) Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Our Torah reading this Shabbat bears the same name as the book it introduces: Shemot meaning “names”. The English name for the book, Exodus , is borrowed from Greek, and means “the way out”. It reflects the real, historical, monumental event of Israel leaving Egypt a free people. Elsewhere in Scripture God speaks of the Exodus as our having been given birth;1 and as you well know, before the delight of a child’s birth comes the distress of birth pains. Biblical history is replete with examples of terrible upheaval preceding the mighty and redemptive acts of God.
Exodus opens with a list of names (hence the title: shemot) – we are reintroduced to the twelve sons of Jacob at the time that they went down to Egypt. They will become the progenitors of the tribes of Israel. That generation, including Joseph, all died in Egypt. Some time later a new king came to power, one who had no regard for the memory of Joseph. Instead of appreciating Joseph for having literally saved Egypt, this pharaoh was consumed by fear of the burgeoning Jewish population and were treated as enemies. Hoping to diminish our numbers he decreed that our people be enslaved. His plan didn’t work. Far from shrinking, our population increased - dramatically!
Pharaoh, now in a panic, issues an infamous edict: all Israeli newborn boys are to be put to death; an atrocity which would be repeated, and for much the same reasons, fourteen hundred years later by another wicked king named Herod. It is the nature of Satan to steal and kill and destroy. He has tried repeatedly through history, always unsuccessfully yet with tragic results, to annihilate the Jewish people. He has used heads of state like so many pawns on a chess board to do his bidding. But why stop at just killing the Jews?
Perhaps it’s no accident that this very passage of the Torah coincides each year with the anniversary of yet another infamous edict: the tandem decisions of the United States Supreme Court known as Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton, Jan. 22, 1973. I’m pretty sure most of us are not in denial about what abortion is. It is the willful and forcible taking of a unique, individual human life; a baby boy or girl with their own DNA, their own blood type, their own beating heart, their own fingerprints. Abortionists and their apologists call babies targeted for abortion a “product of conception,” which is absurd, a morbid form of denial. What else would a human being conceive – a platypus?
In the past 42 years nearly 60 million2 defenseless human beings have been torn limb from limb or burned alive and suffocated with a highly concentrated salt solution, while still in their mothers’ wombs. Does anyone doubt that abortion is the most pivotal moral issue of our generation? Is there any other issue which elicits such contention and passionate debate as this facing our country? Every other issue, every other point of practical or philosophical debate takes a back seat to the issue of the sanctity of human life at every stage. Consider the words of Job: “
But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)
The defiant courage and heroism of Shifrah and Puah
But let’s return to the parasha. Pharaoh has published an edict, calling for the killing of every Israeli baby boy. He gives direct orders to the Hebrew midwives about this. The birthing process in the ancient world was done from a squatting position. A woman couldn’t see what the midwife was doing. The midwives could have gotten away with strangling the baby boys and telling the mothers that the babies had been stillborn.
But we are told that the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, feared God. They deliberately defied Pharaoh’s order, even lying to the king’s face about it. When you lie to cover up your own mistakes, you sin. However, these courageous women lied in order to save life -- other lives, and were blessed by God for it – not only were they given families of their own, but their names, are forever memorialized in the Scriptures! Rahab is likewise named in the Word of God, having lied to the king of Jericho in order to rescue the lives of the Jewish spies. Courageous Christians lied to the faces of Hitler’s henchmen, all while hiding Jewish people in their homes and later helping them to escape Nazi Germany.
The examples of Shifrah and Puah and of Rahab and a few others gave rise to the biblical doctrine known as Pikuach Nefesh (the saving of human life); namely, that rescuing the life of a human being transcends and supersedes every other commandment, because human life is uniquely created in the image of God.
The Sovereign Plan of God
Moses is born in these dangerous times, and his birth is kept hidden from Pharaoh. But eventually it is impossible to conceal his existence, and so his mother, Yocheved, places him in a basket, committing him into God’s hands. Those are powerful, sovereign hands! God steers that basket right into the presence of Pharaoh’s daughter, who sees Moses and adopts him as her own son, and raises him in the royal palace. Talk about flying under the enemy’s radar - one of the Hebrew baby boys condemned becomes one of the elite!
As an adult, Moses is grieved at the plight of his people. One day he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and strikes the Egyptian down. When Pharaoh learns of it, Moses is forced to flee the land. He arrives in Midian, where he helps the daughters of Jethro, who is the priest there, and in gratitude is given one of his daughters, Zipporah, as a wife. In contrast to his first 40 years living in luxury, Moses’ next 40 years were spent shepherding his father-in-law’s flock – a thankless and difficult task in a rugged environment. All the while, the Israelites were suffering terribly under Egypt’s taskmasters, and this did not escape God’s notice.
God appears to Moses at Horeb supernaturally - a burning bush somehow unharmed, and directs Moses to return to Egypt and deliver His people. Moses is extremely reluctant, but God promises that the Israelites would emerge, and the proof of it would be that together they would return to that very same mountain and worship Him! God reveals Himself by a name denoting His infinite nature, and declares that He is to be remembered forever as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God then instructs Moses to assemble Israel’s leaders and together go to Pharaoh. Moses is forewarned Pharaoh will resist and that God will strike Egypt with His wonders. God also promises that Israel would leave Egypt with great riches (or you could call it back wages for 400 years of unpaid labor)!
Owing to Moses’ continuing reluctance, God appoints Moses’ brother Aaron to be his public spokesperson. Moses takes Zipporah and his sons, and begins the return trip to Egypt. But Moses’ house is not “in order”. His son (either Gershom or Eliezer [cf. 1 Chron. 23:15] had not been circumcised according to the Abrahamic covenant. The text tells us that God sought to put Moses to death, and the best way to understand this difficulty is that Moses most likely took deathly ill at the lodge where they had stopped. Zipporah, not Moses (who may have been too debilitated) circumcises their son, but she is none too happy about this Hebrew rite, calling Moses “a bridegroom of blood”. That seems to have been the issue, as Moses did not die, and continued the trip back to Egypt.
Events there unfold precisely as God foretold. Moses assembles the elders, they believe when they see the signs God gave him, they go to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh refuses the request. In fact, Pharaoh is so angered at their “audacity” that he effectively doubles their workload. Their reaction? They cursed Moses! And so our parasha ends at what appears initially to be failure – the sons of Israel are worse off than before. But this is exactly what God forewarned would happen, and it is the precursor to the demonstration of God’s cosmic power unleashed on Egypt. So here’s my question: Did God appoint Moses to rescue the sons of Israel from Egypt on account of our suffering, or was because He had decreed it 400 years earlier to Abraham? Answer: yes.
The Call to Action
What Shifrah and Puah did constitutes the most commendable form of civil disobedience. They risked their own lives to save the lives of those Jewish baby boys. They knew full well that Pharaoh could have them put to death for defiance. What risks are you willing to take to defend the lives of those targeted for slaughter? Would you allow yourself to be inconvenienced? Would you allow yourself to be mocked and ridiculed? Every time Satan ever fomented a slaughter, there were unwitting human beings carrying out his purposes, while other human beings stood up to the evil, often at great personal risk. Sadly, there have always been still other human beings who played it safe; who hedged their bets; who did their best to appear neutral and non-judgmental. But someone once observed that neutrality during a time of moral evil is in itself evil.
God rewards those who risk their own lives to save the lives of others. The Jewish midwives of Exodus are remembered by name in the Word of God for having defied Pharaoh! Are you willing to put yourself at risk to rescue others? We are called to defend the defenseless. May we be willing to put aside, if necessary, our popularity, our comfort and our convenience in order to stand up against the evil that pervades our society. May God give us the courage to be the Shifrahs and Puahs of our day.
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Shemot שמות. Other transliterations: Shemoth, or Shemos
1. See, for example, Deuteronomy 32:18 and Isaiah 66:8
2. Alan Guttmacher Institute figures for 2009 adjusted to 2015
(see: . The Guttmacher Institute is the information arm of Planned Parenthood Federation. This figure was arrived at based on the number of legal abortions reported between 1973 and 2005 (>45 million), with an average of 1.2 million legal abortions performed in each of the past three years.