By Rabbi Adina Allen
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot, holds two age-old stories side by side. They are deeply interwoven. The story of power, oppression, control and degradation on the one hand. And the story of birthing new life, fresh possibility, liberation and redemption on the other.
As the parsha opens, we read, “A new pharaoh rose up over Egypt.” This pharaoh did not know the Israelite people. Consumed by his own fear and obsession with power and control, as the Israelites grow in number, this new pharaoh forces them into backbreaking labor, using them to further his own material interests building Pithom and Rameses as storehouses for his wealth. In one generation, the Israelites go from having Joseph--one of their own--serving as an advisor to pharaoh and enjoying special accommodations when famine strikes the land, to being outcast, othered and persecuted.
For the many millions of Americans mourning today’s inauguration and fearing what this new power structure will mean for us and our families and, especially, for the most vulnerable among us, the parallels between the parsha and the present day are as striking as they are terrifying.
From enslavement, Pharaoh then issues the ultimate decree: that all male babies born to the Israelite women must be killed. This is where the story shifts - from a painful account of oppression, to the planting of the seeds of liberation. Shifra and Puah, Torah’s famous midwives, seemingly unfazed by potential repercussions, and unconflicted about how to proceed, ignore Pharoah’s decree. When confronted about their actions they explain that the Hebrew women give birth too quickly for the midwives to intervene. The midwives are, astonishingly, not punished. Instead, they are rewarded by God for their actions. Unequivocally, unemotionally, in service to a higher power, the midwives defy pharaoh's orders. Their act of resistance is to usher in new, beautiful life.
The road to liberation is long and attaining freedom requires many strategies and tactics: agitating, protesting, lobbying, boycotting, marching, coalition building, just to name a few. Parshat Shemot offers us perhaps one of the most powerful -- and most seldom mentioned-- the act of midwifing.
A midwife deeply trusts the process of bringing new life into being. She pays acute attention to the breath, the heartbeat, always tuned into the vital signs of the new life growing, beating, preparing to emerge. She alters the contours and the angels of the body so that birth is possible. She is not afraid of blood and guts and heart-wrenching screams. She knows - in her own body - that these are the signs that new life is on its way. The one in labor, overtaken by the intensity of sensation, overcome by fear of the unknown, cries out “Make it stop!! Get it out!! I cannot endure!” The midwife squats down, calm and loving, checks the opening and says, “You are almost there. I can see new life breaking through.” A midwife doesn’t force; she adjusts and allows. She holds the pain and the fear. She brings courage and resolve and love. She reaches out to hold the one in labor’s hand and, with her touch, connects her to every generation, every birth, that came before.
The role of midwife, traditionally a female role, is one we are now all being called upon to learn from and step into. Each of us today are midwives for the future. To the new ways of being, seeing, doing, collaborating, creating, sharing, governing, healing and relating that are trying to make their way into the world. There will be screams and blood and guts and it may look and feel easier to say that this is all just too much, just make it stop. As midwives, we must stay calm, focused and undeterred, dedicated to our task of helping a new way come into being. The process of giving birth can feel an awful lot like death. As midwives, may we find the openings, hold the pain and fear, and tap into the love and strength of our ancestors. And may we know with our full beings that new life - a new world - is on her way.