Divrei Torah

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January 11, 2018 - Parashat Va'era, 5778

Exodus: God, Women, and Dr. King

A D’var for Parashat Va’era
by Rabbi Rena H. Kieval ’06

“Exodus: Gods and Kings.” That is the name of Hollywood’s most recent major film version of the seminal story of our people.  The title resonates with our parashah, as we follow the grand showdown of majestic force between God, capital G, and gods, lower case g, the gods of the Egyptians, and the mighty King Pharaoh. Gods and Kings.  We see in this Torah story how Gods and Kings make history. We see the dramatic confrontations which culminate in the defeat of the oppressor King Pharaoh, and the liberation of the Israelites, God’s people.

As we enter into the thick of this spectacular drama, however, we should note that the Torah leads up to the story with a prologue that begins the Exodus narrative with a somewhat different framework. The stage was set in last week’s parashah, Shemot; it reminds us that history is made not only by Gods and Kings. History is also made, and changed, by regular people, by folks like most of us.  The Torah shows us that fact through the stories of women, women about whom our rabbinic sages made the stunning statement, “Israel was redeemed from Egypt on account of the righteous women of that generation.”

The Torah introduces this foundational story with a series of women heroes without whom the Exodus could not have happened.  The midwives Shifra and Puah who defy Pharaoh’s orders to murder all Hebrew male babies. The mother and daughter, Yocheved and Miriam, who save a baby; and a princess and her handmaidens who protect and raise that baby, the future leader of the Israelites. The actions of these women stand not only in direct contrast to the cruel, oppressive regime of Pharaoh; they stand in direct contrast to his values. All of these women protect life rather than take life. They refuse to surrender to cruelty and injustice.

In contemporary parlance, we might say they resist. The midwives are driven by their reverence for God, and Yocheved and Miriam by family love. Pharaoh’s daughter acts out of basic humanity.  She sees a baby crying, and feels compassion. Although she knows that he must be a Hebrew baby, she reaches out to draw him from the water. A primal human response – sympathy for a crying baby – drives her actions. She is the antithesis of her father, the ruler of Egypt, who operates with absolute inhumanity.

The Torah’s prologue might be understood as a different, more subtle version of a Gods and Kings confrontation. As they battle with King Pharaoh, the women of the Exodus are armed with reverence for God, and God-inspired human qualities like basic compassion and family love.

Still, we might wonder why the Torah introduces the Gods and Kings spectacle with this prologue populated by female heroes? What is the significance of Moshe, God’s chosen leader, emerging from such beginnings?

Biblical scholar Dr. Tikva Frimmer Kensky z”l theorized that these women characters are not here to make a statement about gender. Rather, they come to teach us something about power.   The women, she asserts, represent the weak and marginalized members of society.  Some are slaves, but all of them, even the daughter of Pharaoh, lack political power.   Yet these women prevail. Their ability to save and sustain life, Moshe’s life in particular, may be the Torah’s way of stating that power can manifest in different ways. The seemingly powerless – be they slaves, or any oppressed minority – can in fact have great strength.

The mighty Pharaoh, from the start, sets out on a path to his own defeat precisely because his understanding of power is so narrow. He assumes that power is about military strength, physical dominance and authoritarian bluster. His fear of the growing Israelite population is that the men might join an enemy army – hence his decree against male babies. Other kinds of strength are not even on his radar, most strikingly the potential strength of women.  When he decrees that the male babies be killed, Pharaoh explicitly orders – “kill the sons, and let the daughters live.”  He cannot imagine “daughters” as a threat. In a delicious irony of the text, it is a daughter from the house of Levi, Bat Levi, and her daughter, Miriam, together with Pharaoh’s very own daughter, who save Moshe, future redeemer of the people.  It is precisely a group of daughters who set the stage for the downfall of Pharaoh, the king who can only see one kind of power.

In our world, as in the world of the Torah, as it has been throughout time, political leaders, generals and kings certainly wield power and make history.  The Torah reminds us, through the women of the Exodus, that strength can be defined more broadly. In our time, when it seems to many of us that battles are being fought by the powerful against our most cherished Jewish, American, and personal values and ideals, the Torah reminds us not to despair.

We see in the very core of the Exodus story ways in which those who affirm life and love, who pursue justice, those who act with compassion and in solidarity with others, are in fact very strong. Spirit has a strength all its own.

We are also reminded of that strength this week as we honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement. Strength emerges when we nurture life, work for good and work together. Every one of us can make a difference in our corner of the world as we follow the teachings of Torah and of a leader like Dr. King, who famously taught, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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Rabbi Kieval serves as Rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, New York. She was ordained at AJR in 2006.