TORAH PORTION PARASHAT SHMOT Acting from conscience to combat tyranny


If there is an overarching theme in this week’s Torah portion, Shmot/ Exodus, it is the willingness of a state to pass legislation which takes civil rights away from a segment of or the entire population in order to secure its own borders.

The Israelites are not pressed into bondage all at once. Their rights are taken away slowly, methodically, so that the loss is not immediately perceptible. The Midrash takes the Hebrew word, befarech, and plays with it to produce two words, befeh rach, to teach that they were impressed into bondage with a “soft mouth,” that is to say, with gentleness and ease.

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It was all done legally, so there would not be a great protest. Slowly the Children of Israel lost their rights and became enslaved.

In the face of such legislation, civil disobedience was the only way to stand up to those in authority. If laws are unjust, as was the law to kill all of the male infants, then one has to disobey — or forfeit all semblance of conscience and humanity. Shifrah and Pu’ah are the role models for those who would come later to disobey other unjust laws.

They inspired the Righteous Gentiles who hid Jews in their homes, who forged false passports for Jews that they might escape, who placed the yellow Star of David on their own clothes in order to prevent the deportation of their nation’s Jews to certain death during World War II.

They inspired those who protested segregation in the schools and in neighborhoods, who stood peacefully even when attacked by fire hoses and dogs, who kept their place despite the taunts and threats of others. They continue to inspire any who put their own lives on the line to protect the rights of others.

To be “God-revering” does not mean to pay lip service to a belief in God. To be “God-revering” is to act according to one’s conscience, which is endowed by God to enable humanity to know the difference between right and wrong and to distinguish that from what is legal and illegal.

It may mean that one stands alone against the majority, but it also means standing for what is true and just. It is so easy to be won over by a “soft mouth” — by the right words, the right logic, the small steps that can be taken to promote an unjust agenda.

Shifrah, Pu’ah, Yocheved, Miriam, Moses — all practiced civil disobedience in one way or another in order to counter the tyranny of the Pharaoh’s legislation. With God’s help, ultimately their efforts won freedom for the people of Israel and defeated the Pharaoh.

If we are to be true to our mission of tikkun olam (repairing the world), then we, too, must recognize when it is time to stand up to tyranny in the early stages, when it speaks with a “soft mouth.”

As Medinat Yisra’el struggles alone against the tyranny of terrorism that shows a “soft” side to the media and to the rest of the world, may Jews the world over have the courage to stand up with Israel against this tyranny.

All the people of Israel wanted in Egypt, and want today, is to be able to make the hope of the Israeli National Anthem, Hatikvah, come true — to be able “to be a free people in our own land” and to live in peace and security.

Through our efforts, may we one day see a world redeemed — the fulfillment of the prophetic promise of a true Kingdom of God — a world in which all people act as if they believe in God rather than merely saying that they do.

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is a retired member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and affiliated with B’nai Amoona Congregation.