Can freedom’s eternal voice truly be silenced?

By Rabbi Moshe Shulman

Can one individual make a difference in the struggle for democracy and morality in a world of repressive regimes and immoral military despots?

That is the question addressed in the opening chapter of the book of Exodus. It begins with a brief description of the process of how a regime’s decision to consider a visible minority in its midst (in this case the Jewish people in Egypt) a potential threat, and the step-by-step process of curtailing that minorities’ human rights, leads to enslavement, and ultimately to their “final solution”, the destruction of every newborn male child in the waters of the Nile.

But the Torah then introduces the “Hebrew midwives”, Shifra and Pu’ah, and their refusal to follow Pharaoh’s policy of infanticide. Who were these midwives? There are two traditions found in Jewish sources.

One identifies them as Jewish midwives. The other identifies them as “Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews”. It is this latter interpretation, found in the Midrash, as well as in commentaries such as the Abarbanel, which has profound meaning for us today.

The Torah’s description of the resistance of the midwives speaks to the courage of righteous gentiles who refuse to participate in the immoral policies of an evil regime. Against the background of the anonymity of evil described in the opening verses, and the culture of state-sponsored terrorism and persecution, the Torah describes the courageous efforts of these two women, who stood up in the name of morality and decency, and who risked their lives to defend the goodness of humankind.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt published a book entitled: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which was based on the Eichmann trial. Her thesis was that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Eichmann may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary individuals who simply accept the premises of their state and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats, “I was just following orders”. Such was the climate in Egypt, and as such the courage of Shifra and Pu’ah, who feared

G-d (Ex. 1:17), and who stood up against such a policy, was even more remarkable.

In the world of journalism, the importance of a story is reflected in the proportionate length of an article, known as “column inches”. How many column inches does the Torah dedicate to the process that lead to our enslavement? Seven verses containing 88 words (I:8-14). It is noteworthy that the column inches devoted, on the other hand, to the courageous resistance of the midwives (Ex. I:18-21) is precisely the same: Seven verses containing 88 words! The message is simple: In every generation, it is those who have the courage to defy the evil of an immoral and repressive regime who will change the face of society for the better for all humankind.

Such a woman and leader was Benazir Bhuto. Despite all the turmoil surrounding her history, and that of her family, it is clear that she was a voice of reason in a world of extremism and violence, a voice for democracy and peace. Hers was a voice that threatened terrorism. And like Shifra and Pu’ah, hers was a voice that was not afraid to stand up to a society growing more and more cowardly in the face of evil.

That voice has been tragically silenced. The terrorists and extremists think they have won a victory. Indeed they have struck a blow, but they have not won a victory, because the world will not stand by quietly and watch a nuclear power degenerate into the abyss of terrorism and extremism.

The voices of courageous leaders like that of Benazir Bhutto can be tragically silenced, unfortunately. But their message cannot and will never be silenced. Against the Pharaohs of the world, then, and today, good people of conscience and human decency shall prevail.

Rabbi Moshe Shulman serves the congregation at Young Israel of St. Louis.