I want us to think about what Shifrah and Puah, the characters in today’s Torah portion, teach us about Ferguson Missouri.
My Torah portion consists of the first chapters in Shemot, or Exodus as it’s known in English.
In the beginning of my portion, the Hebrew people were in Egypt, enslaved.
The pharaoh told all the midwives to kill Hebrew baby boys because the Egyptians were afraid that the Hebrews would become so numerous that they would take Egypt away from the Egyptians.
There were two midwives who helped the Hebrew women give birth - Shifrah and Puah - and these midwives were smart, street smart. Shifrah and Puah defied Pharaoh’s order.
Why did Shifrah and Puah defy the Pharaoh? The Torah says they defied Pharaoh because they feared God.
But at that time in Egypt the Egyptians had many Gods. Pharaoh was one of these Gods. Defying Pharaoh was defying a God – unless you were monotheistic and not Egyptian.
Since we don’t know from the Hebrew words if Shifrah and Puah were Hebrew midwives or Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews, different teachers had different interpretations about who Shifrah and Puah were.
Rabbi Akiba (a rabbi from the first century) says that Shifrah and Puah are brave Hebrew women. Rabbi Akiba goes on to say it was for their sake and that of the brave women that God freed the Hebrew slaves from the Pharaoh. Midrash (which is part of the stories that are part of Torah lore) says that the Hebrew women helped their husbands and did not lose faith or give up and brought their husbands water and food when they were working.
Other Rabbis such as Pinchas Peli, who lived in the 20th century, think that Shifrah and Puah were brave Egyptian midwives who disobeyed their leader and their God. They go so far as to say that Shifrah and Puah were exercising civil disobedience in their time by defying their government to do what they felt was morally right.
We know from the commandments the Hebrews received at Sinai that it violates the covenant with God to murder. In history class, I learned that Egyptians sacrificed themselves to serve their Pharaohs in the afterlife. We also know from the story of Abraham and Isaac that the Hebrew god wants human sacrifices. Shifrah and Puah were devoted to being midwives. Helping babies come into the world is a very special trait in my eyes. Defying Pharaoh, refusing to murder and choosing to help others live, even at risk to themselves, proves to me that Shifrah and Puah were probably Hebrew women.
Shifrah and Puah were obeying a higher power. But this does not mean what they did was easy. Whatever you think about Shifrah and Puah, we know they were scared to directly disobey Pharaoh’s order because they lied to him when he asked why Hebrew baby boys were still being born.
Shifrah and Puah’s courage reminds me of another brave woman, Ruby Bridges. Ruby Bridges was part of the civil rights movement. She was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. She endured taunts and threats every day on her way to school escorted by Federal Marshalls
When I was in 5th grade I met Ruby Bridges when she came to speak at my school. My mother offered to give her a ride to her hotel after her presentation was over and I went along. We took her to Modern Pastry and the next day my mother and I drove her to visit her old teacher (who lives near here).
Like Shifrah and Puah, Ruby Bridges was very brave. The black community was devoted to obtaining equal rights. Many had gone to jail and were tortured and killed in the struggle. Ruby Bridges stuck with going to school. People threatened her life. This is a scary thing for a young girl. The Marshalls were not always able to protect people. Ruby Bridges and her family were aware of the situations around the US and the dangerous position Ruby was in. She went to school every day that year.
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri shows us that the civil rights struggle is not over. We need amazing people like Shifrah, Puah, Ruby Bridges and others to lead us to the right answers, even if society says otherwise. Where is our modern generation of Shifrah, Puah and Ruby Bridges to guide our nation in the direction towards justice and respect for human life?
For my mitzvah project, I chose to get to know a girl named Natalie whose family came from Ethiopia to Israel. Natalie is 12 and soon will be bat Mitzvah. We are connecting with each other even though we are in different countries and have different cultures. I hope through this experience Natalie and I will learn together to develop communication skills and learn to express ourselves in a way that the other one understands. If we can develop our communication skills, we can learn about each other, share information and help society become more just and respectful of human life. I also made a donation to help Natalie and her schoolmates buy the school supplies they need as they and their families adjust to life in Israel.
I would like to thank my Mom and Dad and my sister Rachel for supporting me, for always cheering at my soccer games and for being the best family ever.
Tracy, thank you for tutoring me and opening my eyes to what I am capable of.
Rabbi, thank you for meeting with me and helping me feel confident in this service.
Benita thank you for your hugs and your amazing personality.
Jean and Sarah, thank you for driving me to Hebrew school and for being Amazing family friends.
I would also like to thank people who travelled long distances to join me today:
· my Aunt Miriam who came from Berlin and
· my Uncle Andreas who came from Omaha to be with us today.
· Frances Horowitz who came to join us from New York and I want to remember her husband Floyd who loved funny poems.
Thanks to my friends from my class at HBT – you know who you are.
I want to thank all of my friends from Bigelow school, Chimney Corners and Chickami who came out to support me today. You are amazing!