North Western Reform Synagogue
London, NW11 7EN
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|Shemot Sermon 2010 - Two Brave Women|
Last year I visited Alyth’s twin community in Kerch in the Crimea. Do go there if you get the chance. It’s like visiting long lost family that you never knew you had – a thriving Reform Jewish community centre visited often by hundreds of people in a day which enabling the Jews of the town to overcome the privations of third world level poverty by sheer good heartedness. One of the joys of being in Kerch is the way they feed you. Often Alyth groups are embarrassed by the community’s generosity – but it really is a major source of pride to them that there is a hard working kitchen at the heart of the Synagogue – ensuring that a square meal is available to all of the children at the Cheder or youth clubs and to the many elderly people who love the Shul’s warmth. It’s Crimea so stuffed fish and prunes, beetroot and black bread, home grown cherries and home reared eggs feature heavily on the menu. I found it delicious but, yes it did feel uncomfortable that a poor community should be putting such effort into feeding we visitors from London – but of course this is the real meaning of hospitality.
Our first meal in the community was with many of the elderly members. The men all wore their medals – having been a second world war veteran is very notable in the community. Kerch put up such a valiant defence against the Nazis, who had massacred thousands of the town’s Jewish inhabitants after a forced march just five miles out of the town, that it is known as one of the twelve hero cities of the former Soviet Union. The women of the community were no less redoubtable – as anyone who has met Zoya the Kerch community’s administrator, will attest. What struck me at that first encounter with the Kerch community was the pride with which the people gathered introduced one particular woman among their number – a rosy cheeked lady in her seventies. She was introduced as the woman who had been a midwife in the town for decades. To the Kerch community she had immense status – among the most important people in town.- the woman who had brought the community literally into the world.
This Shabbat we turn from the Book of Genesis to begin the Book of Exodus. The Genesis of our people ends with just seventy Jews in the world – virtually all named in the book – just the family of Jacob and his sons and daughter. Our people comes into Egypt only as an individual family suffering from starvation. We know their stories intimately – you don’t even need to be a religious person to know the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah and then Joseph and his Brothers.
The concentration in the Book of Genesis on a few people and their lives and actions establishes Judaism's place as a religion of the individual. In Judaism one person, the way that they behave, the way that that person relates to other people and to God really matters. The Rabbis in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) note that, because the story of humanity in the Torah began with one person, Adam, anyone who destroys the life of one person it is as if they murdered the whole world.
This portion of Shemot covers more time than any other portion until we finish and restart the Torah again at Simchat Torah. More than two hundred years pass and we encounter the "new king who knew not Joseph panicking because the Children of Israel had grown too numerous for his liking. No longer was this one family, now we had become a people. No longer are the names of all of the people listed one by one , they are now tribes Tragically our first experience in the Torah as a people was of slavery and Pharaoh’s infanticide when he decrees that the sons of all of the Israelites must be drowned in the river..
For a time our oppression is ameliorated because of the courage of two women, Shifrah and Puah, the midwives. Among the dreadful destruction that is wrought by Pharaoh these two women work to save and to keep alive – they stand against the rising tide of death and the cancelling out of a people – our people. They are the first named people of the this new section of the Torah. Moses is the next.
Moses’s parents are not named in this part of the Torah, nor is Pharoah, nor is Pharoah’s daughter, nor even is Moses’s sister who watched when her brother Moses was put in a basket in the bulrushes – some of these are named later in the Torah but not here in Shemot. Only Moses, Shifrah and Puah are considered important enough to be singled out by name.
Who were they? The Torah story tells us only that Shifrah and Puah were the midwives to the Hebrew women and that they refused to carry out Pharaoh’s command to kill the sons of the Hebrews. We are not told whether they were Israelites themselves or not. Philo the Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria at the turn of the Common Era was certain that they were Egyptian – so was the Roman Jewish historian Josephus. These were women who simply had it in themselves to save and to keep alive the children one by one.
The Torah text does tell us a little more – that they “feared God” and that this was Shifra and Puah’s motivation for refusing to do what the King of Egypt told them to do. For many Jewish commentators the words “feared God” indicates that either they were Jews or had converted to Judaism. But it really does not matter who they were. Their own sense of internal compulsion meant that they mustered the courage to disobey the King’s orders. In the words of Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah ), neither God, nor any other power told them to save the baby boys – the matter was in their mouths and their hearts to do it. Despite the order to kill, what they felt compelled to do was save life. They were witnessing the destruction of a people – but one by one they refused to allow it to happen. Shifrah and Puah in this book of the bible, Exodus, which concentrates on a whole people are the first named individuals whose actions make a difference. Just as the Mishnah tells us that a person who takes a single human life it is as if they had destroyed the whole world so too surely one who saves a single human life is as if they had saved the world.
Why are only Moses, and the midwives Shifrah and Puah named in this episode? Aviva Zornberg in her commentary on the Book of Exodus suggests that it is to do with the unique words used about Shifrah and Puah in Eli’s portion today – this is the first time that anyone in the Torah, is called God fearing. They and Moses had every reason to fear Pharaoh – he was the tyrant, the dictator, the one with the arbitrary power of life and death over anyone in his kingdom of Egypt. But these three respected, cared about, were led by God and not a human being.
These three did extraordinary things in pursuit of justice – Moses, later in the portion, fought back against the injustice of slavery when he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, Shifrah and Puah, talked back to Pharaoh and made sure that the Hebrew children lived.
This is the case for any of us who have to challenge authority in the cause of justice. Our fear of God has to be greater than our fear of human beings – however powerful they may be. This week Jews around the world who know that the Cotel in Jerusalem is for all Jews are hearing the name of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center – a woman who has stood on this very Bimah, and who was arrested for praying at the Western Wall in a way not sanctioned by the Orthodox authorities – Rabbi Laura will speak more about her case in her sermon next Shabbat. Anat’s fear of God is much greater than her fear of man.
Shifrah and Puah challenge each of us when we witness injustice to put God’s demands ahead of those of powerful people. It is tough to know what to do but when do know what is right – the power of our name will be greatly enhanced when we remember that it is greater to rely on God than human beings. Anyone of us can be a Moses, a Shifrah or a Puah. Our name can live on if we are true to the best in us – not if we cave in to human demands.
Every person that we help - it makes a difference to that person’s life. That is what it means to be God fearing - to know that to try to use our hands to do a little of God’s work. It is the best that we can do to make God real in the world and to reach out to the humanity for whom we pray.
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