Last week in Israel and in many other places around the world we entered a general lockdown again. In the weekly Torah portion in Exodus 1, the children of Israel also entered a “lockdown.” (Parshat Shemot)
It was a lockdown on families having children. It was a lockdown on society. It was a lockdown on spirituality.
However, it was when they got locked-down that they become a people, that they got defined by Pharaoh as the “children of Israel.” They became a distinct group with its own identity. And tens of thousands of people living together with a shared identity can pose a threat.
At least that’s what Pharaoh thought.
For the children of Israel, the transition to being a people meant lockdown was also an opportunity: An opportunity to discover their power and unique strengths; an opportunity to reconnect to their heritage; a golden opportunity to rediscover God, whom they forgot in their many difficult days of bondage. The “lockdown” opportunity led to freedom for the children of Israel from cruel slavery.
As we read this Torah portion, we can feel the power that births and perpetuates the dynasty. An entryway into this power comes from… the Israelite women – an “animated vitality.” (The word Hayot is rather tamely translated “lively” in NKJV Exodus 1:19. Elsewhere it means “animals.”)
Women have a central role here in making a difference:
- The Hebrew midwives Puah and Shifrah disobey Pharaoh’s command to kill the Hebrew male babies.
- Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy (Moses). Despite the order to throw all boy babies into the Nile River, she hides him in her house. When forced to release him to the river, she does so, but in a little floating ark.
- Miriam his sister guards Moses from the riverbank, endangering her own life.
- Pharaoh’s daughter saves his life. She gives him a name and a home in the palace and raises him into adulthood.
- Later, Zipporah, Moses’ wife, gives him a new home in Midian and gives birth to his sons.
As we read we see that the women in this Torah portion produce possibilities of life, of home – of a safe place for growth and development. We can give all due respect to the laws, decrees and restrictions laid down then, and usually even today, by men. However, in this Torah portion it is the women who are responsible for creating the “space” that allows life.
We witness the women in this portion make a decision by listening to their heart, to their gut sense. And for the sake of that leading, they are willing to risk their lives.
From the interpretation of the Hebrew names we can see and learn that decisions made through the heart and through inner listening will ultimately lead us to places of health, calm and feeling alive; to places where faith grows.
I pray that we pay attention to the inner voices in each of us, and that even world leaders will learn to listen to these voices. Let’s understand that the voice of logic is not the only voice. Sometimes it is precisely the opposing voices that can lead us to better places. I pray that even in these moments, when it seems as if the world has gone mad, and the life we knew has changed – that even now we will hear the voice of the heart and the voice of faith and give them a place in our decisions. Maybe then we can find ourselves coming out of the isolation, lockdown and quarantine that have been imposed on us for almost a year. Maybe the opportunity we should take advantage of now is to learn from this Torah portion and the women who trail-blaze in it.
What voices should we listen to? Where should we turn up the volume?