Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1

A new king arose in Mitzrayim, the Land of Egypt, who did not know Joseph. Thus begins a dreadful chapter for the Hebrew people.

“And he said to his people”: From the beginning, Pharaoh choses to be a leader for “his people,” not for everyone in the land (Exodus 1:9).

“Look, the Israelite people are too numerous for us”: Pharaoh states opinion as fact. His outlook is rooted in fear; he sees a problem where none exists. Rather than experiencing the “other” as an asset capable of enhancing Egypt’s strength through diversity, Pharaoh determines instead that people who are different are a threat (1:9).

“They may join our enemies in fighting against us”: Pharaoh’s is a binary world in which people are divided into two camps: Egyptian and Israelite, boy and girl, “us” and “them.” Further, he believes that life is a zero-sum game; the fortunes of one group rise as the other’s fall (1:10).

“And rise from the ground”: Pharaoh dehumanizes his opponents, a standard tactic from tyrants (1:10).

“A new king arose over Eygypt who did not know Joseph”: Could Egypt’s leader be ignorant of such an important chapter in his nation’s recent history (1:8)? Some commentators say that this was not a new Pharaoh, but rather a renewed Pharaoh. Rashi notices that the Torah does not tell us that the old king died, and cites Shmuel in suggesting that this was a renewal of law, not a coronation. Modern interpreters envision a Pharaoh suppressing his own past. In this reading, Pharaoh’s inner demons mean that he cannot see the good around him. He projects his own failures, fears, and sense of powerlessness onto the Hebrews, seeing them as something they are not.

In the essay “Leading from Within,” Parker Palmer discusses a pitfall of leadership. Our “tendency [is] to make enemies by projecting what we hate within ourselves on somebody else” so as to avoid confronting our own internal enemies. (Emphasis added.) “So we imagine that Someone out there is the enemy – people of another race, people of another economic system – and we deal with the enemy by killing them, when what we are really reacting to is the shadow in ourselves.” This is what Pharaoh does when he decrees the Hebrews be killed and enslaved. Palmer continues. “Leaders who operate with a deep, unexamined insecurity about their own identity … deprive other people of their identity as a way of dealing with the unexamined fears in the leaders themselves.”

Taken as a whole, the Exodus story reminds us that the politics of division can be successful, but only up to a point. The God of Justice ultimately hears the cries of the oppressed. Power based on suppression cannot stand. Amos’ waters of justice crash down upon Pharaoh, and he is lost.

There is another way. We can access our own, internal goodness and project that onto others.

When Pharaoh commands that Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile, the two midwifes refuse to comply. They do not see Hebrew newborns as a threat, as Pharaoh does. Instead, they project their own sense of potential and goodness onto the babies, and resist the decree. Their righteous actions manifest their righteous souls.

Are Shiphrah and Puah Hebrew women, or Egyptian women who care for Hebrew families? Rashbam says the women were Hebrews; Abarbanel says that they were Egyptian. I believe the text is purposefully ambiguous so that we cannot be certain of the midwifes’ identities, lest either “insiders” or “outsiders” claim them and leave the work of justice to the other group. Either way, Shiphrah and Puah are true ivriot, “crossers-over.” Because they see our shared humanity rather than our differences, they transgress the lines that would divide people in pursuit of what’s right.

Rabbi Dean Shapiro is the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of Tempe.

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