Go Ahead and Change the World - Parashat Sh'mot
This D'var Torah was given to Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue, WA, for Parasha Sh'mot 5778, by Rabbinic Intern Natasha Mann.
Go Ahead and Change the World
My mother recently finished watching the second season of The Blue Planet. If you’re not familiar with The Blue Planet, it is a British nature documentary on marine life. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and also breathtakingly depressing, especially when the focus shifts to the impact humans are having on the ocean and its life. My mother was almost in tears as she described a scene where a parent albatross confused a plastic toothpick for food, and took it back to feed to her baby. The albatross then held her baby as the baby died. This particular scene had a big impact on my mother, and as a result, she has become more dedicated to avoiding purchasing or using single-use plastic products which cannot be recycled.
A part of this has meant that she no longer uses the plastic cutlery in her workplace, and instead brings her own cutlery from home. Apparently this behaviour has registered as odd to one of her workmates, whose response was to be offended by her attempt at being more environmentally conscious. According to my mother, he reminded her that she has to stop driving her car if she wants to care about the environment, and furthermore, that any actions on her behalf cannot possibly affect the wider issues. The environment is doomed. She’s just one person, using a few dozen fewer plastic spoons, in a big world of single-use plastic.
Feeling hopeless in the face of an injustice much bigger than the self is, of course, very natural. I know that I feel it regularly. I have many friends who simply don’t bother to read the news anymore, because they feel that they cannot make a difference anyway. I have every sympathy for the perspective of my mother’s workmate, even though I would prefer that nobody speak to her that way. It is a perspective of ‘the world is big and I am just one person’. And do you know what, it’s true – the world is big, and you are just one person.
However, I think that the beginning of the book of Sh’mot, of Exodus, is railing against that mentality. The larger Exodus narrative, with God and the plagues and the splitting of the sea, tells us that with God, anything is possible. Which is true, and is beautiful, but that’s actually not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the micro narratives. The very beginning of the story, before God gets directly involved in the liberation from Egypt, reveals what I think is a fascinating narrative about power, and who has it.
The story begins with our backdrop: a new Pharaoh rises who is terrified of the Israelites, and so he enslaves them. Why is he terrified of the Israelites? Because they keep having babies, and increasing in number. But enslavement doesn’t seem to be enough, because the Israelites continue to procreate. This scares Pharaoh so much that he sentences each newborn baby boy to death. Egypt is a political powerhouse. Pharaoh thinks of himself as a god. And yet Pharaoh is so afraid of the Israelites that he wants to kill infants. It’s bizarre, but it’s also believable; after all, what do the powerful fear more than the loss of power?
We then have a series of stories about women, all of whom are responsible in some way for the survival of Moses. We the readers already know who Moses is and what he is going to do, so when we read these stories, we know that they are important and world-changing. But that is not what the actions would look like to the characters in play.
First, we have the narrative of the midwives. Pharaoh tells the midwives that they are to slaughter any male infant birthed from an Israelite woman. It is truly bewildering to me that Pharaoh is surprised when the midwives won’t comply – I think it represents how divorced he is from reality and from humanity. The midwives do not follow orders. This is our first example of the seemingly-powerless acting in moral courage, acting with whatever scraps of power they might have, even though they surely cannot save all of Israel. Even though slaves of all people have every reason to believe that they cannot affect the big picture. But in this case, at least they can save some of the infants in front of them. That’s what the story must look like to them. You and I know that they actually do save all of Israel. It seems to be that their refusal to do their terrible task allows the baby Moses to be hidden from Pharaoh.
Next, we see Pharaoh issue a new command that the baby boys be found and thrown into the Nile. Now, we get to meet the mother of Moses, who hid her infant for as long as possible. When it is no longer possible to hide him, she and her daughter make a last-ditch effort to save his life by putting him in a basket in the Nile. The likely results of this effort are not good, whether or not baby Moses is found. But Moses’s mother and sister do not have the power to do anything else to save him, and so they do what little they can. They give him a tiny sliver of a chance.
What happens next is my favourite part of the Moses narrative. Moses is found by, of all people, the daughter of Pharaoh, Bat Paroh. You know this story well, but I want to press you to stop suspending your disbelief – everything about this story is absurd. Bat Paroh, Pharaoh’s daughter, just happens to be bathing in the Nile, and sees the baby Moses. Of course she knows he’s an Israelite child – the text is explicit about that – but she decides to keep him as her own anyway. She’s somehow allowed to do this, even though her father is frothing at the mouth with hatred for male Israelite babies. And furthermore, after speaking with Moses’s sister at the river bank – from the perspective of the daughter of Pharaoh, apparently just a random Hebrew child – Bat Paroh then sends Moses back to his birth mother to nurse him. She even pays Moses’s mother wages to nurse her own child.
To my eye, this is either supposed to be comically absurd, or it’s meant to imply that something deeper is happening here. Since Bat Paroh is universally described as a righteous woman, even renamed by the rabbis ‘Bat Yah’, Daughter of God, I’m inclined to believe that we are not supposed to be laughing at her. It seems to me that Bat Paroh is very aware of what is happening. She is aware that she is sending the infant back to his mother, and is helping that family. It’s a set-up. We’re not supposed to be laughing at Bat Paroh, we’re supposed to be laughing at Pharaoh. Either way, it is clear that Bat Paroh is between a rock and a hard place. Her love of a Hebrew infant heavily implies that she does not feel the way that her father does about the Israelite children. And once again, from her perspective, she is not able to save the Israelites from their fate. But she does have the power to care for this one child, and so she does what she can. And from our perspective, we know that – unbeknownst to her – Bat Paroh is saving the entire Israelite nation from their bondage.
In the beginning of Parashat Sh’mot, the story is moved entirely by small acts of the seemingly-powerless. Not one of those acts looks like it will affect the bigger picture. But we know, while we’re reading the story, that they will. We know that each of those actions will lead to the life of Moses, and the redemption of the Israelites.
Unfortunately, we cannot read our own lives with the same clarity. We cannot know which of our actions will change nothing and which might change everything. But I think that the beginning of Sh’mot is telling us not to succumb to the incorrect, nihilistic assumption that we cannot change the bigger picture. It is a big world, and you are just one person. How much more wonderful it is, then, that you have the power to affect the world. I implore you to use that power wisely.
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