Sunday, December 23, 2018

Shemot (It Isn't Nice)

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew’s midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah,  “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.                          (Exodus 1:15-17)

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.
                                    (Malvina Reynolds, “It Isn’t Nice”)

Our Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—is timely in this political season, as it describes the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience.  When an immoral tyrant—in this case, Pharaoh—issues an unjust decree, the midwives Shifra and Puah actively resist, bravely refusing to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys. 

Who were these two heroes?  Our reading of their identity hinges upon how we understand their job description—m’yaldot ha-ivriot—which can be interpreted two very different ways.  Many commentators understand this to mean “Hebrew midwives,” and some, such as Rashi, go so far as to suggest that Shifra and Puah are pseudonyms for Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam.  Others read the phrase as “midwives to the Hebrews” and therefore identify these brave women as Egyptians.  I much prefer the second path, following the reasoning of Rabbi Pinchas Peli, who notes: “We may understand how Hebrew women would muster the courage to disobey the king’s orders and refuse to kill Hebrew children.  But consider the significance of the deed if Shifra and Puah were valiant Egyptian women who rebuffed the great pharaoh.  They did not say, ‘My country, right or wrong. . . ‘  The case of the Hebrew midwives is proof that dissenting individuals can resist evil and thus start a whole process of liberation.”

This is a bold—and essential—text.  Under ordinary circumstances, our tradition calls us to show utmost respect for the civil authorities.  As the Talmud notes: Dina d’malchuta dina—the law of the land is binding on the Jewish community.  To which Rabbi Chanina added: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.”  Yet the Rabbis recognized that this principle of dina d’malchuta dina does not apply in the case of unjust laws and authorities.  When rulers and policies undermine the Torah’s core ethical teachings, we are morally bound to resist them—as Shifra and Puah taught us.

Of course it is easier to recognize the heroism of dissidents after the fact.  Today, when nearly all Americans honor Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, it is easy to forget how controversial they were in their own time.   So, too, with Shifra and Puah; as I imagine the story, our bibilical heroines were probably reviled by most of their Egyptian peers.

The twentieth century Jewish folksinger and political activist Malvina Reynolds expresses this truth brilliantly in her song, “It Isn’t Nice”.    The song is a pointed response to those who criticize the tactics of civil disobedience as unruly and deride those who engage in them as lawless and impolitic.  As Ms. Reynolds notes:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway
It isn’t nice to go to jail
There are nicer ways to do it
But the nice ways always fail.

Sometimes the overthrow of an unjust and corrupt moral order demands stronger medicine, despite the naysayers of the status quo:

Now our new ways aren’t nice
When we deal with men of ice
But if that is freedom’s price
We don’t mind.

The melody is simple, even childlike and so is the rhyme scheme; the whole piece is, ironically, awfully nice—but the message is urgent.  Thank God, in the face of brutal injustice, Shifra and Puah were not nice.  Neither were Rosa Parks and MLK.

Nor should we be now, in confronting the challenges of our own time.

If that is freedom’s price, we don’t mind.

1 comment:

B2 said...

This is an essential message for all. Thanks again, Rabbi Dan, for your extraordinary leadership.