I dedicate these words to our neighbor George Floyd (z”l), may his memory be for a revolution.
A new Pharaoh rose up over Egypt who knew not Joseph. Now, when we ended the book of Genesis, Joseph and Pharoah had a close relationship — you remember how cozy those two were, saving all the Egyptians and the Children of Jacob by planning ahead; well, the Jews thought they had it made in the Egyptian shade.
Not so much.
Over the years, this new Pharaoh strategically and intentionally made life more and more difficult for the Israelites: Taking away their rights, enslaving them, beating them, challenging their basic dignity.
The Israelites groaned under the bondage and cried out; the new Pharaoh was cruel and paranoid, indecent and violent. So we cried out to God: We cried out to resist tyranny. Because we knew in our bones that slavery and human dignity are incompatible.
I want you to know the names of two women who remade the world — and without whom, we wouldn’t be here today: Shiphrah and Puah.
Shiphrah and Puah were the midwives who delivered the Hebrew babies. And when Pharaoh decreed that all the Israelite boys must be killed (he got paranoid the Israelites would form a mass army and rebel), they engaged in history’s first act of civil disobedience. They refused to do what the almighty Pharaoh demanded.
Pharaoh was furious! “Why are you disobeying me?”
Shiphrah and Puah answered him, “The Hebrew women are vigorous! Their labor is so short — they give birth before we arrive.”
C’mon folks. Shiphrah and Puah lied. They lied to save those babies. They refused to destroy innocent human life because of the ravings of a megalomaniac lunatic. According to the Egyptian legal system, they broke the law!
But God rewarded them and their households.
And we remember Shiphrah and Puah — and their epic moral courage — at Passover.
The Exodus story recalls the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery to freedom. It wasn’t an easy road to freedom.
You might remember the story? Moses didn’t walk up to Pharaoh in his palace one day and say, “You know Sir, we’d like to talk. You see, while we really enjoy working seven days a week in the hot Egyptian sun and don’t really mind our taskmasters beating us or throwing our baby boys in the Nile, we’ve decided that this just isn’t the right match for us Israelites. Thank you for your time, but we’re going to depart to worship our God in freedom. How does next Tuesday at noon work for you?”
Liberation wasn’t easy! Pharaoh’s heart was stone. The Israelites spent 400 years being treated like garbage. Moses had a hard time speaking in public and the people had Egypt in their hearts. Few of them could imagine a different life — a world where they were free. In fact, the rabbinic sages explain that the Israelites couldn’t even hear Moses at first—mi-kotzer ruach v’avodah kashah — they were being worked so hard they couldn’t even breathe.
They couldn’t even breathe.
That’s precisely why there were 10 plagues before Pharaoh let the Israelites go free. Why? To remind us that freedom doesn’t happen overnight. And certainly not for a racist system that was built over four centuries!
Those 10 plagues were as much to challenge the Egyptians and the Pharaoh as they were to show the Israelites that we had the power of endurance; the plagues helped the Israelites slaves build the requisite faith and the spiritual muscles to resist tyranny. We build faith step by step, story by story, person by person.
Those 10 plagues were the original politics of disruption; humanity’s boldest wake-up call.
You beat these slaves? We’re gonna ruin your water!
You overwork these people? We’re gonna wreck your crops!
You won’t pay them? We’re gonna block your roads!
You won’t free them? We’re gonna turn off the lights!
You deny people their basic human dignity? We’re coming!
After 10 plagues, Pharaoh’s hardened heart finally shattered and our people marched to freedom!
Because enslaving people, discriminating against people, denying people their innate dignity, choking them to death on the street is such a profound theological affront to God that business as usual just isn’t possible. We must never forget where we’ve come from and who we are: “We were slaves in the land of Egypt, you and I.” Those are the words we recite every Passover seder.
This. Is. Personal.
Human dignity is our ultimate theological concern. And when that means interrupting business as usual to break the chains of bondage, then it is both our religious inheritance and our moral obligation to rise up against the tyranny that prevents all people from being fully human.
The Road To Freedom Isn’t An Easy One
This was an incredible essay, thank you so much for writing it. I did not know the details of Passover with Shiphrah and Puah.
Thank you for your words.
Laurel Fox Hoch