Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

This week we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot, named for the names of our ancestors who arrived in Egypt to flee the famine in Canaan. They find themselves subject to a new Pharaoh, one who has forgotten all the good that Joseph did for the Egyptian people. How easy it is to overlook, to forget, the good that others do for us. Hakarat haTov, recognizing the good and living lives of appreciation is a fundamental aspect of Jewish life. Living with gratitude is our spiritual foundation, and the Torah reminds us here of the tragic consequences that ensue from the simple act of moving from being thankful to being fearful.

This Pharaoh is threatened by the Jews, and he decrees that all male children are to be thrown into the river. Big mistake — he woefully underestimates the power of Jewish women. Pharaoh had only considered the possible need to defend against the physical resistance which he imagined as expressed by the men, who would rise up in armed rebellion.

He neglected to think about the women, however, who represented a different type of strength — spiritual strength. Spiritual strength is that which enables us to surmount huge obstacles and to survive. The heroic midwives, Shifrah and Puah, resist Pharaoh's cruel decree, in the first recorded instance of civil disobedience in history, so both the men and the women have a chance to survive. The rabbis suggest that it was because of the merit of the women that the Jewish people survived Egyptian enslavement.

There are two other brave women in this week's parshah. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, bravely defied Pharaoh's order and hid her newborn son in a basket which she floated on the river. There he was discovered by Pharaoh's daughter, Batya, who rescued him and raised him as a prince in the palace.

Rashi calls our attention to the midrash which suggests that by the time Batya noticed Moses floating away, he had drifted too far for her hand to reach. Miraculously, as she stretched out her hand to grab the basket, her arm grew in order to enable her to seize Moses. Sometimes we are faced with impossible tasks, tasks we think we can never accomplish. And sometimes miracles happen, our resources are extended beyond what we thought were the limits of our capabilities, and wondrous things occur as a result. Imagine how different our history would be if Batya had shrugged her shoulders and walked away. As the Haggadah says, we, and our children, and our children's children would still be slaves in Egypt. And sometimes we need to be on the receiving end of the outstretched hand — that's okay too.

Later in the parshah, we encounter one of the most dramatic scenes in the entire Torah as Moses experiences God in the wilderness. While tending his father-in-law's flock, he comes upon a lowly bush which is burning but not consumed. In the longest conversation between a person and God in the Torah, God tells Moses that God has heard the cry of the Jewish people in their pain and is sending Moses to lead them to freedom. God reinforces this message; we, who are made in the image of God, need to hear the cries of the less fortunate and be prepared to respond with courage and compassion. While others had passed by this wondrous bush and not noticed its uniqueness, Moses was paying attention.  

May we be blessed with hearts that are open to the wonders around us and the need for courage to confront what must be done. May the women of Shemot inspire us by their example, inspire us by their spirit which was not consumed but shone forth. JN 

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is the associate rabbi of Temple Chai in Phoenix.