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Parshat Shemot: The Secret Weapon of Jewish Survival

Updated: Jan 10


Stephen Fry, one of Britain’s most beloved actors who had never been particularly vocal about his Jewish identity, spoke out against antisemitism in a fireside chat in a parody of the BBC Queen/Kings Christmas message. In what has now become one of the most popular broadcasts recently, Fry declares ““I accept and claim that identity with pride. I am Stephen Fry, and I am a Jew.” “So, speak up, stand with us, be proud to be Jewish, or Jew-ish, or, if not Jewish at all, proud to have us as a part of this great nation as any other minority, as any of you.”

What made Fry, who could predict the backlash, publicly affirm an identity he had not been particularly conscious about until this moment?  The events of October 7th gave rise to a paradoxical phenomenon that saw many Jews, who had been somewhat indifferent towards their Jewish identity, suddenly being thrust into a collective character beyond their choosing. It was how Rabbi Sacks described his own experience as a Jew in 1967, “I belonged to a people. And being part of a people, I belonged.

What does it mean to belong to this people and what does this belonging call us to do?

The answers, I believe, can be illustrated in two narratives from this week’s parsha.

 

The women who see beyond

First are the women we read about in Exodus (chapter 2), whose names were are not told initially. From the moment I first learnt about these women, especially Miriam, I fell in love with them. I fell in love with their ability to see beyond the given.  Note how many times we read - ותרא – to see.  Yocheved ‘sees’ that Moshe is good; Miriam watches him from afar – the midrash tell us she ‘sees’ what will become of him; Bat-Pharaoh – ‘sees’ the child - not an Israelite, vermin, subhuman - but a baby, a person; she sees beyond the given structures and definitions, or you might say propaganda, she has been instructed to believe. I loved the tenacity. Miriam, whose emotional intelligence allows her to intuit the complexity of Bat-Pharaoh’s position, offers her a get-out clause (I will bring you a wet nurse), rather than begging for her brother’s life and leaving Bat-Pharaoh no choice but to play her role in the genocide. I loved Bat-Pharaoh’s sheer chutzpah at bringing an Israelite baby into the palace, of choosing humanity over indoctrination. I loved these women for their hope, their stubbornness, their unbridled belief in a better tomorrow without negating the darkness of the present moment.

There was something that spoke to me about Miriam and the water, the well, about digging deep in the dark and clutching onto the basket whilst praying, dreaming, and believing that life will emerge from the echoes of obscurity. It was her tenacity —  וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק — to stand strong and look from afar - towards the horizon – to the  point at which no more can be seen, but knowing that there is more. It was also the story of the women, armed with their mirrors and their delicacies of fish who went to their menfolk and forced them to see the bigger picture, to plan for the future, be able to lift one’s eyes in the midst of the storm, even when faced with the world’s most evil acts ever to have been perpetrated by mankind, and see the light emerging in the distance. To find water in the well, music in bitterness, life in death.

This is not belief in a happy ever after. This is not finding good in every bad. It is acknowledging that life is indeed bitter and that evil indeed exists. What we thought was a golden age turned into a dark age.

It is knowing all of this and still choosing life.

Choosing to have children, choosing to dream of redemption, choosing to wake up in the morning and feel the heavy weight of the world on our shoulders and STILL take those small steps of responsibility towards fixing it. It is having the courage to move beyond our comfort zones and face confrontation, without thinking of our own survival because there are some things larger than our own existence. It is belief in our own individual strengths and the vision of a better tomorrow.

I love these women, because in the true Jewish fashion they were not just followers but leaders. Rather than echoing the song of their leader, as the men did with Moshe, Miriam teaches the women to sing their own song to which she responds.

וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם: - And the women followed her with timbrels and drums, and Miriam responded to them.

I love them because they did not wait for a miracle; instead they took responsibility for their own destiny. They cling to their Jewish identity, they feel the pain of their people and fight for survival by being active agents of change in a humble and modest way. We may even be as bold to suggest that this may be the reason that instead of being in Egypt for 430 years, as God promised our forefathers, they are redeemed after 210 years. As the Rabbis incisively point out:  בזכות נשים צדקניות נגאלו ישראל ממצרים – In the merit of the righteous women, Israel was redeemed from Egypt.

They ensured we did not forget who we are, they guaranteed our freedom through affirming theirs, holding tight to their collective identity and displaying loyalty to their history and their future. Despite the attempt by Pharoah to blot out our names, our identity, our particularity, we survived. The women are an inextricable part of the story because they made the story part of them – through their awareness, emotional intelligence, deep empathy, sheer tenacity and unbridled hope.

 

Moshe’s ambivalent identity

Moshe is unsure of who he is. The ambivalence of his identity is echoed in the verse that precedes his killing of the Egyptian taskmaster who is hitting a Jew וירא כי אין איש ויפן כה וכה he turned here and there, and he saw there was no man. From the perspective of identity Moshe looked here and there – he looked to the Egyptians and felt no sense of kin, he looked to the Jews, but was unsure he was part of them and therefore he was no man – he felt lost and alone. He did not belong.  Moshe is ambivalent about who he is. But his convictions remain resolute. He knows that he will not stand idly while injustice is being perpetrated. Like the women who raised him, Moshe ‘sees’ beyond the given; he questions all basic assumptions and feels the suffering of the other. The verse tells us וירא בסבלותם – he sees ב- into - their suffering. When he passes the burning bush God chooses him because סר לראות – he goes out of his way to ‘see’.  As a true leader Moshe possesses a deep sense of awareness, empathy, tenacity and motivation to act for justice. Characteristics nurtured in him by those women who ensured his survival.

Moshe acts in the same way as those women who refused to remain passive bystanders of history, instead becoming the active agents of change.

In one of the most profoundly moving speeches by God in the book of Exodus, He finally reveals to Moshe His identity. It is as if God was saying to him: ‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and you, Moshe, are part of this people. The pain that you feel - that deep, sharp knife-like wound - that is the pain of connection, of belonging, of being part of something bigger than yourself’. ‘I too’, says God, ‘have heard the cries and sorrows of My people. But I will not save them alone. I will save them with you’.

וְעַתָּ֣ה לְכָ֔ה וְאֶֽשְׁלָחֲךָ֖ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהוֹצֵ֛א אֶת־עַמִּ֥י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם – you will go to Pharoh and save My people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt. 

That is what it is to be part of an eternal people whose story transcends the particularity of individual existence. It means connecting to a story that extends before and beyond me. But it also means taking responsibility for my nation. It means I must feel their pain; it means I must see their suffering; it means I must act to ensure their redemption. And the key, says God is אהיה עמך - I will be with you. We don’t do it alone. God is with us.

The women of the Exodus intuited this eternal belief; Moshe was taught it by God. Today we are seeing more and more Jews who are understanding this and acting accordingly. Let us pray that just as God was with the women and Moshe and ensured their actions ultimately resulted in redemption, our actions, with God’s help, will bring about victory, unity and redemption in our time.




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