Parashat Shemot: A Few Simple, Short Thoughts, in Long Difficult Days.
The Torah Portion “Shemot” is first in the book of Exodus, which describes the transformation of the Children of Israel into a People. Here we “separate” of our Fathers and we “walk” into a different notion called WE. Because of this, for example, our memory of the Exodus refers to “us”. This Torah Portion presents one of the most important principles in the whole Torah through the stories of 5 heroines.
The first two heroines are Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. In an act of insubordination they went against Pharaoh’s orders, disobeying the person who is not only king but also considered God. They were asked to kill all the male newborns but kept them alive, risking their own heads.
The next pair of heroines are Yocheved (mother) and Miriam (sister), who when Pharaoh became even more strict in his policy to kill newborns, decided to do everything they could to keep Moses (not yet named) alive. Following Yocheved’s instructions Miriam took Moses to the river and watched him until he was found by the 5th heroine – Pharaoh’s daughter. Knowing that her father had sentenced all the Hebrew newborns to death, she nevertheless was going to adopt Moses and raise him as her own son.
The last noble deed in this Parasha is Yocheved’s being the one who eventually breast-fed Moses, without acknowledging her own motherhood.
If we try to find a pattern in the heroic acts performed by our characters, I can dare say that they all kept in mind the answer to an ontological question, such which ultimately seeks the meaning of life.
In the “Ethics of the Fathers” it is said: “Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations” (there, 4:1). In the same book one chapter before we find a symbol of the ontological question: “Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting” (there, 3:1). Are these the questions which our heroines had in mind?
Torah has one word which encompasses the essence of the ontological question; it is “Ayeka?” – “Where are you?”. God asks Adam “where are you?” not because He doesn’t know where Adam is, but because He believes that a person who wishes to live a life of meaning and responsibility should be able to ask himself “where am I?”. Because this question is essential in living a life with values. Because otherwise there is no left, no right, no up, no down. The strength of the five women is expressed in times when their humanity and their right for independent thought are threatened, and they decide that living a life without meaning is much worse than risking life in order to have meaning. When reality comes “knocking on their door” asking “where are you?” they reply with the answer of Moses at the end of the Portion when he stands in front of the burning bush, called by God to lead the people of Israel. Like Moses they say “here I am!”, I am here for you, I am present, I am committed to values and to ideas which are beyond my basic existence (though I couldn’t have existed without them).
The question “where are you?” is transcendent. It is not limited in time and does not end in the Biblical text. It is what many call God, or principles, values, ideas. Our world is full of challenges. There is an abundance of worrisome news. So many conflicts and so much hatred. The book of Exodus at its start relates how a few women could “work” with the hatred of Pharaoh, creating solutions. And this is a reminder; where we may feel that we should take action in hatred, be driven by immorality, we can choose otherwise. We can stop ourselves momentarily and ask where we are and to whom we will be accountable for our stand. We can choose to confront hatred with love, to confront silencing with a shout, and to confront death with life.
We can be heroes by always hearing the voice asking “where are you?” and by answering again and again “here I am!”