Yom Shishi, 19 Iyyar 5779
Friday, 24 May 2019
Parashat Shemot 2015

9th January 2015 - Rabbi Danny Rich

As most children return to school and many adults resume their commute to work after the ‘seasonal’ break, the Torah cycle takes a dramatic turn.  The Book of Genesis is finished with all its ‘pre-historical’ tales of creation, Noah’s flood, the Tower of Babel and the early stories of the founding Hebrew family which begins with Abram and his call by God, gives way to Isaac and his love match with Rebecca and culminates in the formation of a people –the Children of Israel- named after the third generation patriarch, Jacob, whose twelve sons include the successful Egyptian, Joseph.

The second Biblical book –Shemot (names in Hebrew) or Exodus- begins in Egypt.  Its first parashahis called Shemot after its opening words: Aleh shemot B’nai Yisrael ha-baim Mitzraymah: These are the names of the Children Israel who came to Egypt (Exodus 1:1).  Its English name, Exodus, indicates its core content: the dramatic departure of a people –The Children of Israel- from that same Egypt which they enter at the beginning of the book.

Following the theme of ‘names’ this parashah introduces us to three characters, two of whom are frequently forgotten heroines but the third of whom is a household name in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic worlds –even before last month’s release of the latest Biblical blockbuster, Exodus: Gods and Kings.

The heroines are a pair of midwives, Shifrah and Puah (Exodus 1:15-22), who are instructed by the Egyptian ruler, the Pharoah, to kill all male Jewish babies.  They refuse and so Pharaoh seeks drowning in the River Nile as an alternative means of infanticide.  It might first appear that this pair of midwives has a small part to play in the Biblical text, and it is indeed the commentary, themidrash, which develops their personalities and deeds.  There is a lengthy debate about whether Shifrah and Puah are Jewish, are converts to Judaism or are Egyptian, and, whist this may have been important to the rabbinic tradition, what is really impressive about these two woman is their act of civil disobedience in defiance of Pharoah which presumably arises from the morals of their upbringing and the ethics of their profession.  As the National Health Service (NHS) experiences another ‘Accident & Emergency crisis’ perhaps we might pause for a moment and appreciate the sometimes heroic efforts of NHS staff of all ranks and races who seek to ‘keep the show on the road’ and give of their best to their patients.

The story of Shifrah and Puah is immediately followed in the Torah by the record of the birth of Moses who name and deeds need no introduction.  Born into a Levitcal family and placed in a wicker basket on the water (Exodus 2: 1-4), he is rescued by the daughter of Pharoah who commissions Moses’ own mother to be the child’s nurse (Exodus 2: 5-10).  The Torah gives no further details of his upbringing but he intervenes when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.  The death of that Egyptian (Exodus 2: 11-15) necessitates his flight to Midian where he becomes a shepherd, is (first) married to Zipporah and experiences fatherhood with the birth of Gershom (Exodus 2:16-22).

Chapter three of the book of Exodus is worthy of an essay itself as it relates the legend of the (non)burning bush and Moses’ call to leadership by a God who will be known as ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ which has something to do with ‘being’ in the past, present and future.  Moses’ initially response to the Divine call is one of reluctance, and a close reading of the next might well indicate a combination of fear and courage and of self doubt and humility.  However interpreted, this dramatic encounter in the desert of Midian between, on the one hand, a young man brought up in the Egyptian court which he is now being asked to confront and, on the other hand, a God who speaks through a flaming bush might remind us of the burdens of leadership and cause us to reflect on some of the required qualities for its successful exercise.

As Israel faces a crucial General Election in March –and as the United Kingdom will undergo a similar experience only a few weeks later- we can at least hope that whomsoever emerges to lead these countries will combine the best of our ‘names’ in this week’s parashah: the courage and ethics of Shifrah and Puah with the humility of young Moses.