Seeing the Other

By Shona Keir, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Exodus begins with a list of the twelve sons of Israel who, along with their families, immigrated to Egypt.  At first, the community had a small population of seventy but they started thriving in their new environment, and the community grew.

Then a new king, Pharaoh, came into power.  Pharaoh, having no prior personal connection to Joseph or the Israelites, was fearful and suspicious of the Israelites’ ever-growing community.  Without the personal connection, he did not see them as human, so he set forth a mandate that subjected the Israelites to hard labor and essentially turned the entire community into slaves.  In letting his fear guide his actions, he quickly defined the Israelite community, a community he knew nothing about, as the “Other”.  With the mandate, he gave his subjects the right to see them as the “Other” as well.

Despite oppression and brutal forced labor, the Israelite community continued to thrive and grow.  Pharaoh amped up his fear level again, and set another mandate.  He instructed the two Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew newborns.  The midwives believed that G-d would not want them to kill the babies, so they did not follow Pharaoh’s decree.  Pharaoh grew upset with the midwives, and declared all male newborns, Hebrew or Egyptian, be thrown into the Nile river.  His fear and hatred of the “Other” was so destructive that he was ready to sacrifice the future of his own community in order to hurt the Israelites.

In the meantime, a Levite husband and wife conceived a child.  When the wife gave birth, she saw she had delivered a beautiful baby boy.  She feared for the baby’s life so she hid him for three months, until it was no longer possible to keep him a secret.

She had to do something to give this baby a chance at life, so she waterproofed a basket and put the baby boy inside.  She went down to the river Nile, and floated the basket among the reeds.  All along, her daughter had been watching what was happening, and now she watched the basket as it floated among the reeds.

King Pharaoh’s daughter came down to the river to bathe.  She spotted the basket and directed one of her slaves to get it for her.  When she opened the basket, the baby started crying.  She realized it must have been the son of a Hebrew woman and took pity on the baby.  The baby’s sister, still watching, got up the nerve to ask Pharaoh’s daughter if she would like her to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child.  Pharaoh’s daughter said yes, and unbeknownst to Pharaoh’s daughter, the baby’s sister brought back their mother as the wet nurse.  The mother was able to be with her son until he reached the next stage of his life, at which point, she returned him to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopted him and named him Moses.

The parasha continues on, but what seemed interesting about this passage is how familiar the story of labeling an entire group of people as bad and then degrading them is, thousands of years later. It is an example of how easily an entire community can be dehumanized strictly based on lack of personal connection, lack of knowledge and fear of the unknown.  What is encouraging is that there always tend to be a few people willing to go against the grain to do what seems fair and just, despite pressure to go along with acts of inhumanity.

Several woman played major roles in creating the ability for Moses to grow up safely within the Egyptian community.  If the Egyptian community had known who he really was, they probably would have killed him.  The common thread in this passage is that each of the three women developed a personal connection with the baby, which greatly improved his chances of surviving.  His mother had the connection of his birth and of taking care of him for three months.  His sister had a connection with him as her baby brother, and she also she had her own connection with her mother.  She witnessed the hard choice her mother made in order to try to save her brother’s life.  That bravery may have encouraged her own act of courage when talking to Pharaoh’s daughter about getting a wet nurse.

It was particularly interesting to look at the connection between Pharaoh’s daughter and the baby.  Being the King’s daughter, she must have known about the mandate to drown all newborn male babies.  Yet, when she saw the baby and heard him crying, he became human to her. She decided to help him.  As both the King’s daughter and a royal subject, she must have realized how much trouble she would be in if she disobeyed his decree and was caught.  The connection she made with the baby was more powerful than the mandate of her father.

Degradation of entire communities due to fear and then hatred has occurred throughout world history.  Certainly, people of our faith are not strangers to the experience of being identified as the “Other”.  Throughout out our history, it has left devastating consequences.  The most recent large-scale instance was the Holocaust, which ended only seventy-five years ago.  In some places today, we are still considered as the “Other”, and there are still people who would prefer we didn’t exist.

This passage showed that the importance of personal connection with each other should not be minimized.  It is too easy to write an entire group of people off due to fear of the unfamiliar or discomfort.  We are less likely to be cruel and inhuman when we are able to find a way to identify with people and their particular situations, even if their circumstances are not as recognizable to us.  It is important to remain diligent in the act of seeing the humanity in each situation to which we are exposed.

The passage also provides some reassurance that there will always be people who are willing to stand up against an inhumane situation, despite the resistance and despite the consequences.  World history has shown this to be the case as well.  In some of the most challenging circumstances, there are always news clips about a person or a group of people who put their safety, and sometimes their lives, on the line in order to help other people.   Those who perform such brave acts show inherent good that I believe is in most of humanity.  Going forward in life, I hope to be more consistently conscientious in my role as a member of society, recognizing that personal connection provides an enormous benefit to the cohesiveness of societal living.

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