For many of us, we anticipate that this week will be full of so much change and upheaval, fear and anger, anxiety and sadness, and hopefully also motivation and drive to act. So how do we respond in the face of great challenge? Our Israelite ancestors certainly faced some pretty trying circumstances, so what can we learn from them about how to garner our energy and stay strong when the going gets tough? The question I have been asking myself for months has been: Is this a time for realism and immediacy, or for imagination and fantasy?
In parashat Shemot, the Israelites face existential crises: back-breaking slave labour, the harshest of population control measures from Pharaoh, internal bickering and struggle, a new leadership in Egypt and within their Hebrew community. So what did they do? We are presented with two groups of women, each of whom exemplify a different answer to the question of “realistic or fantastic?”
As the ultimate realists and activists, Shifrah and Puah, the “nasty women” of Shemot, use their unique position as the midwives of the Israelites to protest and undermine Pharaoh’s attempted genocide of Hebrew baby boys. Told to kill any male Israelite children, they directly disobeyed Pharaoh’s order and came up with a cunning alibi to protect their own lives and jobs. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks deems this moment the first recorded instance of civil disobedience, preceding the supposed creator of the concept, Henry David Thoreau, by thousands of years. He writes of this innovation as one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to civilisation: “the idea that there are moral limits to power. There are instructions that should not be obeyed. There are crimes against humanity that cannot be excused by the claim that ‘I was only obeying orders.’” Shifrah and Puah act with urgency and immediacy, addressing the very real practical threat. We recognise the phenomenal example they set us of how to behave in the face of political and authoritative immorality, as Sacks lauds these women: “Through their understated courage they earned a high place among the moral heroes of history, teaching us the primacy of conscience over conformity, the law of justice over the law of the land.”
However, there is a group of women who give us a different model for how to cut through the despair and hopelessness to envision a future of greatness: the women with the mirrors. We look to Midrash Tanhuma (Pekudei 9, quoted by Rashi): During the slavery in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that Israelite men could not sleep in their houses, so as to stop them having sex and producing more Israelites. So what did the women do? They went out to the fields where their husbands were with food, wine, and mirrors. Having eaten and drunk, looking into the mirrors, she said, “I am more beautiful than you” and he said, “I am more beautiful than you” and in this way they began to desire one another again. God made them conceive immediately and they had “hosts” (ts’va’ot) of babies. Through the merit of the women with the mirrors, they persevered through the awful slavery, and the hosts of the Israelites were established. As we read, “All the hosts (ts’va’ot) of God left Egypt” and “God brought the Israelites out of Egypt in hosts (ts’va’aot)” (Ex 12.41, 51).
Having been introduced to this text by the great Torah scholar Avivah Zornberg at Limmud Conference UK last month, I was so struck by the idea of fantasy and the ability to imagine as the keys to redemption. Zornberg illustrated this idea by explaining how the people could not reproduce and were losing the will to endure, until the mirrors sparked their imaginations and showed them what could be, what there was to live and fight for. The mirrors enabled them to see with a different perspective, and, after years of slavery, helped them to realise their self-worth and engage in an unlikely and dearly needed act of self-affirmation. Under Pharaoh’s harsh rule, they had lost their sense of self, and with it, their ability to be in relationship, to create families, and to envision a future. The women with the mirrors brought perspective and a wider, deeper, and broader vision, and, through their reflections in the glass, enabled the Israelites to dream and imagine. In their creativity, long-term view, patience, and fantastical imaginations, these women brought about redemption, and a future for the Children of Israel.
Both of these groups of women in this week’s parashah act courageously and with ground-breaking insight and innovation in risk situations, opening themselves up to potential rebuke and retribution. Despite the difference in motivation – realism vs. imagination – they all use their usually denigrating and disadvantaging status as women in biblical society to their advantage. Reproduction, childbirth, and fertility are their realms of control, and they harness this power to organise and create change. They are not from the leadership echelon, nor are they particularly highly regarded or well-placed in status to expect that they might be able to effect difference, but they work together with creativity and coordination to dramatically alter the course of their people’s future and fight the injustices they see around them.
We live in a time in which, it seems to me, we must find ways to harness both the immediate action and crisis management of Shifrah and Puah, and the imagination and long-term vision of the women with the mirrors. We are not at liberty to ignore either. These women show us that there are many ways through the darkness, and that even harsh, immoral Pharaohs cannot stifle our energy, vision, and will to fight on. Redemption may seem far off, but parashat Shemot shows us that it is always possible to inch ourselves closer little by little: do something immediate, practical, and tangible to fight injustice… and then go and look in a mirror; you never know what fantasies of the future or imaginings of idealism you might be able to see.
Originally from London, Sarah Grabiner now lives, works and studies in New York, as a third year cantorial student at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. Last summer she was fortunate enough to spend 2 months as a T’ruah fellow, learning a great deal and interning at the Women’s Prison Association.