Sermon: Sh’mot (Rabbi Maurice Michaels)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 2 January 2016

I suppose it’s a sign of the times, but these days I tend to get my news not from the radio or TV or newspapers, but by checking two or three times a day on my smart phone. This week a number of stories that caught my eye were about women in different parts of the world. In the UK there was yet another survey which showed that pay differentials had widened during the past year and that among new graduates women were on average paid £5000 less than men. There was an article about a young girl in Pakistan who had been beaten because she, a Christian, had used the same toilets as the Muslim girls in her school. Women in India who had been raped were regarded not as victims but as predators. There were the usual stories of how women are treated as second-class citizens in various parts of the Middle East. And much of that was juxtaposed against the ludicrous membership of the United Nations Forum on Women’s Rights of countries who do much to earn the opprobrium of the civilized world for the way they treat women.

This was still in the forefront of my mind when I looked at our Torah portion for this week and recalled that we would be meeting five women in this opening section of the book of Exodus. First off, we learn about two midwives Shifra and Pu’a who were told by Pharaoh to kill all the boys who were born. But they were more afraid of God than the King and so they disobey the order. Now, at that time, Pharaoh really was all-powerful and so to disobey him was very risky, but Shifra and Pu’a know that what he wants them to do is wrong and they are prepared to take the risk. The Torah tells us that as a result God rewards them.

A little later in the reading we learn that Moses’ mother also disobeys Pharaoh. She refuses to drown her child when he is born and keeps him hidden for three months. Had he been found, she would probably have been very severely punished, but again she was prepared to take the risk. When she can’t hide him any longer she does her best to make sure that, although she puts him in the water, he won’t drown.

At that point, Moses’ sister Miriam takes over. She waits along the banks of the River Nile to watch over him and to see what will happen. When Pharaoh’s daughter finds him she could very easily have left him there because it could have been dangerous, but she approaches the Princess and suggests that she can find someone to nurse the baby for her.

While we might say that the risks Moses’ mother and sister take are only natural because they are family and they love him, in the case of Pharaoh’s daughter it is different. She realises immediately that this is a Hebrew child and why it is there, but she has compassion. Not only does she not carry out her father’s order, she agrees to Miriam’s suggestion, even to the extent of paying wages for the nurse, and then, when Moses is old enough she takes him to live in the Palace.

I know that the Torah has often been maligned as being misogynist, yet here we have – in one sidrah – the example of five women, who between them were God-fearing, loving and compassionate, and without whom Moses, the rescuer of the Children of Israel, would not have survived.  These are role models, not just for women, because their actions – apart, of course, from Yocheved, who nursed Moses – were not specifically feminine.  They were courageous and risk takers, prepared to stand up for what they thought was right.  As such, we can all learn from them and try to emulate them.  By contrast we have the stupidity of Pharaoh, whose xenophobia, his fear and hatred of the other, led to the eventual loss of his son, most of his finest charioteers and horses, and his slave population.

When I look around this congregation and others in the Reform Movement, I appreciate just how much we have benefitted from our long-held egalitarian policy and I realize how much other, more traditional, branches of Judaism could learn from our approach.  But it is not just in the area of religion that so much more can be done.  There are still huge swathes of business and commerce in this country where the glass ceiling still operates, where women and not enabled to fulfil their potential, where the old boy’s network still applies. I know that you will all be able to come up with examples of women holding senior positions, but they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule.

And, of course, it is not just this country that could be so more effective if women were allowed to fully participate in all aspects of life.  There is no doubt in my mind that socially, economically, politically, educationally and culturally, there is no country that would not benefit from enabling its women greater involvement in its affairs.  They would bring to the table those attributes demonstrated by the five women we met in our Torah reading this morning.