D’var Torah for Shemot: Choosing to be Ivrim

This is the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at CBI. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)


“The Israelites were fruitful and they swarmed.” The root ש/ר/צ  / sh-r-tz connotes the unsettling scuttling of insects. Once the Israelites began to multiply in the land of Egypt, something shifted. Torah seems to be hinting that the people — or at least their Pharaoh — thought of the Hebrews as nameless, faceless swarming creatures.

“A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.” Our sages debate whether this is literally true. How could the leader of Egypt not know the story of the Israelite who saved the empire from famine? Rashi teaches, it is as though he did not know Joseph. He may have known the Joseph story, but he chose to ignore it. Intriguingly, it’s this Pharaoh, the one who perhaps chooses to conveniently forget that an Israelites was once useful to him, who invents the term “Israelite nation.” His language subtly portrays the children of Israel as a fifth column living among the Egyptians.

The scholar Judy Klitsner notes that:

Pharaoh’s claim that the Israelites are “רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ / rav ve-atzum mimenu,” greater and mightier than we are, is absurd; they are but a small minority in a vast Egyptian empire. But Pharaoh’s words are not chosen to report verifiable statistics; they aim for an emotional, fear-inducing impact. Through his exaggerated claim, Pharaoh taps into and amplifies the anxieties of his people who feel as though they are being rapidly outnumbered by the prolific strangers.

Pharaoh whipped the people’s anxieties into a froth, and the Egyptians made the Israelites’ lives bitter with hard labor.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik draws a distinction between two kinds of slavery: being bound to an individual master, and being bound to a totalitarian state. When Joseph worked for Potiphar, he was a slave, but there was a relationship there. Potiphar knew him by name. Some empathy between them was possible. But when the children of Israel were forced to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses, they served an impassive and oppressive regime.

Ordinary people, swayed by Pharaoh’s racist rhetoric, came to see the Israelites not as human beings but as swarming things, like cockroaches or rodents. And once it became normal to dehumanize these foreigners, it became possible to enslave them and to afflict them with hard labor, with mortar and with brick.

Portraying outsiders as swarming creatures is a nasty tactic which didn’t end with Pharaoh. In Nazi Germany, propaganda films interspersed shots of swarming rodents with shots of the expanding Jewish population. And one needn’t look far on the contemporary internet to find horrifying instances of people talking about immigrants who “breed like roaches.”

Notably the book of Exodus omits all mention of God from this story of dehumanization. (That’s another insight from Judy Klitsner.) When we turn others into nameless, faceless animals, we make God absent. We remove God from the story.

Salvation enters via an unlikely source: l’meyaldot ha-ivriyot / לַמְיַלְּדֹת הָעִבְרִיֹּת, the Israelite midwives Shifrah and Puah. Biblical women often don’t get names, but these two do — which I think is relevant in this, the book of Shemot, the Biblical book whose name means “Names.” Pharaoh tells them to kill all of the Israelite boys, but they have awe of God, so they disobey.

It’s not clear from the text whether these “Israelite midwives” are Hebrew women who act as midwives, or Egyptian women who act as midwives to the Hebrews. The word Ivri, “Hebrew,” can also mean boundary-crosser. Perhaps these women are midwives who transgress, who cross boundaries of lawful behavior in order to save the lives of others.

Humanity is still prone — we ourselves are still prone — to parroting Pharaoh’s ugly way of thinking and speaking about people who are unlike us.

But we are equally capable of playing the roles of Shifrah and Puah — of cultivating awe of God, and in so doing, opening up new possibilities.

Shifrah and Puah’s awe of God gave them strength to disobey Pharaoh and to spare the lives of the baby boys. That act of  human decency is what makes possible the birth of Moshe, who will lead the Isralite people from slavery into freedom and into covenant with God.

Each of us has a choice: to be an ordinary Egyptian who succumbs to other people’s dehumanizing rhetoric, or to be a brave boundary-crosser who recognizes the essential humanity of every person on this planet.

On this Shabbat Shemot, I bless you: that you should resist the temptation to be part of the nameless masses, or to see anyone else in that way. Instead, may you be blessed to live up to your name, your uniqueness. May you be an Ivri, someone who crosses boundaries in order to work for justice and for human rights. And in so doing, may you make God’s presence manifest in our world.

(And we say together: Amen.)

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