Parshat Shemot: Choosing awe over fear


By Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen

The fiercest defense against tyranny may be the refusal to go along with its worldview.

When a new Pharaoh arises who does not know the Jewish people, he fears us and sees only a challenge to his power. He orders the midwives Shifra and Puah to kill the male Jewish babies as they are born. Incredibly, these women have the courage to say through their actions, “We will not be complicit. We will not go along with fear-mongering and hate.”

The ancient rabbis were quite taken with this story as evidenced by the many midrashim that explore it. Perhaps it seems so striking to them because, then and now, what is so often presented as a basic truth in human societies is that “the other” is a threat and, therefore, we must guard against “them.” The rabbis see in Shifra and Puah a different understanding and wonder what could give them the strength and courage to resist Pharaoh’s tyranny and his “us against them” mentality.

Torah says, “vatirena et ha-Elohim” — they feared G-d. That is the driving force behind their refusal to murder babies as they emerge into the world. Another translation for the root yod-resh-hey, however, is “awe,” and I suggest that is what gives these two midwives the strength to endanger their own lives on behalf of the lives they shepherd into the world. It is their awe for the Creator and Creation, experienced so intimately at each birth. They are direct witnesses to the mystery of new life, new possibility, new hope — all of which Pharaoh would have them extinguish because of his fear of “the other.” They have the courage to resist because of their profound and ultimate respect for the Divine presence attendant at each birth, the spark of animation that distinguishes life from death, the nishmat kol chai — the breath and soul of everything that lives.

In a worldview that elevates fear of difference and assumes those who are not “us” must be a threat to everything we hold dear, it is easy to feel comforted by the promise of violence to meet perceived danger. But in a worldview that places awe for Creation and Creator at the center, violence against those who are different from “us” is simply not something we can do. “V’lo asu…” — they did not do as Pharaoh had commanded. They refused to go along with his worldview.

Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen is a rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

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