This past Sunday a beloved teacher of mine was burying her father as my sister (by love) was birthing my newest nibling. For a few minutes amidst it all, I was talking with her midwife recounting the births of my own children. What always arises for me when I journey back to the birth of my two kids is the way in which the line between life and death seemed to dissolve. Birth and death mark our tenuous and mysterious transitions into and out of this world. And in that moment her midwife responded, "That's why they say midwives stand at the gates."
This week in the Torah we begin the book of Exodus and read parashat Shemot. In this one parsha we move through so much of what is known as the Exodus story. We could spend all year just studying this parsha. What stands out for me this week, not surprisingly, are the Hebrew midwives (note: it is unclear if they are Egyptian midwives who serve the Hebrews or Hebrews themselves). The midwives defy Pharaoh's orders to kill the male babies. They stand at the gates and pursue justice.
In fact, this parsha is full of fierce women. Given the deep roots of patriarchy in Torah, it is astonishing to take note of the many women who are essentially the primary protagonists in the early Exodus narrative. The presence and density of these women is made even more amazing by the fact that they are all mentioned by name. Shifra and Puah, the midwives. Miriam, Moses's sister, who watches from afar, strategizing as her brother floats down the Nile. Pharaoh's daughter (whom the rabbis call Batya) who adopts Moses and enlists Moses's mother Yocheved as her wet nurse. Not to mention Tzipporah, Yitro's daughter, whom Moses marries.
Earlier this week I was remembering that three years ago, just before Trump's inauguration and the first Women's March we read parashat Shemot. And again this year, as people are organizing in every city across the country for the Women's March, Jews all over the world, including us at Calvary, will be reading the story of these mythic women. Reminding us that lifting up and making visible reproductive labor is core to building successful liberation movements. This was true in the days of abolition, in the civil rights movement, and it is certainly true today.
While we are not canceling Shabbat services to attend the march as a community, please know that whether you are in the streets or at shul (and everywhere else!), we are in this together, prying open the gates of justice. May we merit to experience a taste of the world to come, that is whole and just.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.