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Parashat Shemot 5783

January 10, 2023

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Shemot
By Rabbi Katy Allen (’05)

I’m glad I wasn’t an Egyptian back then.
I’m glad I wasn’t there
to be ordered by Pharaoh
to throw newborn babies
into the river. (Exodus 1:22)

Although, I’ve heard that I might not necessarily
have had to drown any babies myself ‒
I might, instead, have had to force my neighbors,
the Israelites,
to drown their own babies (Or HaHaim).
I’m glad I didn’t have to do that either.

It’s also possible,
the whispers through the generations tell me ‒
and I shudder in response ‒
that if I myself had given birth
the day that Moses was born,
I might have had to kill my own baby,
Egyptian though he would have been. (Sotah 12a)
Of all the terrible things our sacred tradition tells us

that Pharaoh did,
I find that telling his own people
to snatch up baby boys
and toss them into the river,
or to make their neighbors
kill their own infant flesh and blood
speaks the loudest
about what kind of human being Pharaoh was.

I pause, and I wonder.
What would I have done,
had I been one of those Egyptians?
Or an Israelite back then?
Would I have had the courage to resist?
Would I have been afraid?
Would I have been willing
to put myself in danger?
Would I have protected those babies?

What would I have done?

Perhaps I would have been like Amram,
Moses’ father ‒
upon hearing of Pharaoh’s decree
he announced, “We are laboring for nothing
by bringing children
into this world to be killed.”
And he divorced his wife. (Sotah 12a)
He gave up,
and others followed his lead.

By contrast,
Shiphrah and Puah
engaged in private acts of resistance –
for their having been commanded to kill babies
was not public knowledge. (Or HaHaim)
They didn’t refuse to smother babies
so that people could know them as heroines.
They refused to follow Pharaoh’s decree
simply and profoundly
because of their awe and reverence for G!d (Exodus 1:17)
and by extension, human life.

I think of these two women
whose names have been remembered through the millennia
because their steadfast faith in G!d
gave them the courage to resist Pharaoh’s harsh decree.
I think of them, and I wonder.

Regarding the Egyptians,
I ask myself, Was faith in their god
what caused them to obey Pharaoh?
Because to them, he was god?
Did they believe in what they did?
Killing babies?
Did they wince, or shudder, or grieve,
even a tiny bit?

I think of the babies who have died
and are dying today
because of what leaders of my own epoch
have done, or have not done.
I don’t see those babies die.
I don’t hold them and feel their soft skin
and gentle breathing.
I don’t have to kill them myself
or tell my neighbor to.
These babies are invisible to me.
Even unknown.
I don’t have to be aware they are dying.
Or the reasons why.
And sometimes,
perhaps often,
I forget or I don’t pay attention.
Is that so different from actually throwing babies
into the water?

I’m reminded of the ancient sages
telling us that as long as we are waiting
to bury a loved one,
it is as though our beloved
is laid out before us, (BT Berakhot 18a)
obvious and visible to us,
even when they actually are not,
and our obligations
are synonymous with that.

How different is it, then, to consider
that as long as babies
are being cast into the water somewhere,
it is as though it is happening
in front of us,
before our very eyes?

I can, of course, try to justify myself.
I can speak of small things I do
to try to help make the world
a better place
where not so many babies are dying.
But in the end, babies still die.

I am not Shiphrah. I am not Puah.
But neither am I an Egyptian,
considering Pharaoh to be my god.

However, like Puah and Shiphrah,
I do have faith.
I do trust in G!d,
(at least I think I do)
and yet, if so, I ask myself,
when that moment comes
when faith must lead to courage,
will it be enough?

Or perhaps that moment has already come,
and I didn’t even know it?

For, as the songwriter tells us,
“Don’t say the day will come”–
the day when no more babies will be killed–
do something,
“bring on that day,” (Shir LeShalom)
make it a reality.

And then I find myself asking,
is it possible
that the small acts I have undertaken,
and continue to do
have actually saved another’s life?

Could it be possible?
How can I know?

There is no way to know.
Is that, perhaps, what it means
to have faith and trust in G!d?
To know that just as I don’t see
the babies who are dying,
I also don’t see,
or know about,
or touch,
or hear,
those who survive
against all odds,
because of some small act
of mine,
or yours.

Rabbi Katy Allen (’05) is the founder and rabbi of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long and has a growing children’s outdoor learning program, Y’ladim BaTeva. She is the founder of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA, a board certified chaplain, and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She is the author of A Tree of Life: A Story in Word, Image, and Text and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the.singing at Ma’yan Tikvah.