From Deference to Authority

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

Within the three short verses of my Torah portion, Exodus Chapter 1, Verses 15 through 17, lies what has to be one of the major acts of defiance in Torah. Afraid of the Israelites, who have been growing in number and strength, Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite boys should be killed at birth. As my portion tells us, the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, “fearing God … did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” This act of defiance enables the Israelites to continue their line—which as we know, goes on to endure across borders and millennia.

Torah commentators have debated whether the “Hebrew midwives” were Israelites themselves, or perhaps Egyptians assigned to deliver Israelite babies. The text is unclear. If they were Egyptians, the midwives were especially insubordinate to their ruler. Whether Egyptian or Israelite, we read about two subservient women whose act of civil disobedience leads to what we understand as a critical outcome: the birth of Moses. The women ignore the rule of the land in favor of the rule of a higher authority: they know that God’s spiritual and moral code does not include killing babies. The text doesn’t give us any detail about what consequences the midwives would have faced by defying Pharaoh. Nonetheless, we can assume that this punitive and angry ruler would be prepared to hand out terrible, perhaps even fatal punishment for their disobedience. Despite this, Shifrah and Puah make the only choice that seems right to them, the moral imperative of which is far greater to them than any personal consequences they might face.

This story brings to mind several historical events in our lifetime. From Martin Luther King, Jr., to Vietnam draft dodgers, to Edward Snowden, there are plenty of examples of individuals who have followed their consciences instead of the law of the land — and who have suffered the consequences. I am certainly interested in the political and historical implications of such acts. Yet, as a woman and as a Jew—and on the occasion of becoming a bat mitzvah—I am more interested in exploring the deep personal resonance this snippet of Torah has for me. For I have spent much of my life being deferential, a “pleaser” – to my parents, my teachers, my bosses, my friends, and my partners. It has only been recently—as l have gotten older, and as life has thrown significant challenges at me—that I’ve begun to evaluate my choices not based simply on following the rules and making others happy, but based instead on my own sense of what is right. Choosing Judaism as an adult was a conscious act of aligning my values and my sense of justice with tikkun olam, and embracing a powerful code by which I choose to live. Simultaneously, having weathered some difficult situations and people over the past decade, I have reached a place in my life where I am no longer willing to just go along with decisions and actions I don’t believe in. This is why I can especially appreciate that Shifrah and Puah stand up to a powerful leader, defy a social and civil code they think is wrong, and choose to obey a higher authority.

In our Torah reading, that higher authority is, of course, God. But I believe that the midwives are also answering to themselves. Shifrah and Puah know they will disappoint not only God but themselves if they follow Pharaoh’s decree to take innocent lives. They are willing to suffer Pharaoh’s punishment as long as they don’t have to face God—or their own consciences—in the final reckoning. This is the heart of the Torah passage for me. The more experienced and the wiser I get, the more I believe in my own authority. I don’t blindly follow others’ rules anymore; rather, I evaluate them for their sense and their moral value. I decide whether I can live with them according to my own belief system—my own authority. I am willing to say “no.” I will accept any practical consequences, as long as my choices and actions don’t lead to two outcomes I can’t accept: harm to others, and disappointment in myself.

There is much to learn from these brave biblical women. While listening to my own authority certainly won’t result in building a nation, I can only hope that the decisions and actions I embrace throughout the rest of my life have a similarly positive, lasting impact—on my children and on my legacy.

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