There is an uncanniness about the presidential inauguration, this presidential inauguration, happening on Shabbat Shemot, the Sabbath in which we read the first portion of the Book of Exodus. What could be more timely than this ominous phrase:
ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים
Vayakom melekh chadash al Mitzrayim. "A new king arose over Egypt." [Exodus 1:8]
Now I know it's strange to jump right into Torah when our attention is transfixed on Washington and on our newspapers and streaming press coverage. But bear with me. Because the uncanniness does not end with the mere rise of a new king. The full verse goes like this:
ויקם מלך חדש על מצרים אשר לא ידע את יוסף
Vayakom melekh chadash al Mitzrayim asher lo yada et Yosef. "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph."
Joseph, Jacob's son, the one with the crazy coat, the one tossed in a pit and sold into slavery, who made it to Egypt, learned the ropes, read dreams and became Pharaoh's favorite in this new land and new language. Joseph, who, as a bullied youngster and an immigrant and an outsider, lived a life story that can only be described as queer. Joseph brought new insight and ideas to a failing Egypt. With the backing of his Pharaoh, he figured out how to enable the whole population of Mitzrayim to survive a 7-year famine.
But the new king did not know Joseph. Or did not care to know Joseph. Did not care about the accomplishments of an immigrant or someone of a different language or ethnicity or skin color. Did not want ideas from the margin or the lessons of someone who had been a slave. The new king would be happy if he never had to hear such voices. Vayakom melekh chadash. There arose a new king, with short memory and short fuse.
Yes, this Torah portion on this day is uncanny.
And I am declaring this to be the narrative I will keep close to me in the coming years. I know that for many Jews, it is easy to select another Jewish narrative – the one about Nazi Germany. And the parallel might even be a good one. But it is a story that activates all our inherited trauma, and pushes us toward desperation and panic. I am not interested in a story today that renders me more helpless than what is actually happening. I'm not saying the comparison isn't valid. But it is a story of loss, not of liberation. And today I want a story of liberation.
And Torah gives me one. "A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph."
This story, this exodus story, is our master story for this moment. We know it well. We retell it every year. We have digested it along with so much parsley and saltwater. It is in our cells. We know it starts with enslavement. And we know it ends with freedom. It begins with suffering and ends with song. Its road is recognizable and stretches from vayakom melekh chadash – "a new king arose" – to mi chamocha baeylim Adonai – "who is like you, Adonai," our song of jubilation on the far side of the Sea.
We know this story and we are not traumatized by it. On the contrary: it holds our hope and strengthens our resolve. In the same way that African slaves in America, and their descendants through Martin Luther King and beyond, have found power and determination in the language of this master story, so can all of us.
Now many of us will be marching this weekend. For some of our children, it will be their first protest. For many of us, it will be our umpteenth. It will be a multi-generational affair. Our own Shira Hadditt will be wearing a t-shirt her daughter made her that says, "Raging Granny: Marching since 1948."
We will march. We will gear up. We don't know what demands justice might place on us in the coming years. We don't yet know when we will be called upon to put our bodies on the line in civil disobedience, in protest, or to form unlikely coalitions or make unexpected moral decisions.
But when we need to do these things, Torah says do it. You don't need to have power or status. You don't need to be of the ruling class or ruling gender or ruling race. Torah tells us this right in the master story. Because once the predicament is established – a new king arising who doesn't know anything, and who fears the Hebrew immigrants and enslaves them, and out of paranoia orders the killing of their firstborn sons – once we see all this horror laid out, Torah gives over the act that first sets our liberation in motion. And that first act is civil disobedience.
This civil disobedience is led by five women, a sort of Hebrew Women's Underground. And unlike in much of our tradition, we know these women's names.
The first of the five are a pair – Hebrew midwives named Shifrah and Puah. Pharaoh calls them to the palace to enlist them as collaborators. He commands that when the Hebrew women are upon the birthing stool, if it is a male child born, the midwives should kill it. Only if it is female should they let it live. [Exodus 1:15-22.]
But they resist. They deliver safely into their mothers' arms all the babies. Pharaoh calls them back to the palace to find out why they have not done his dirty work. And they cleverly respond in a way that appeals to Pharaoh's racism. They say, "The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are animals. The give birth before we can even get there." And Pharaoh buys it. Shifrah and Puah, Hebrew Women's Underground, First Wave.
So Pharaoh takes it out of the hands of the midwives. Instead he orders all his subjects to throw male Hebrew babies into the Nile. And that brings us to the Hebrew Women's Underground, Second Wave.
A Levite woman named Yocheved. In my mind's eye I see her meeting with Shifrah and Puah around a table while her daughter Miriam keeps watch at the door. She has had a baby, a boy, and she has kept it hidden for three months. But now it is too dangerous.
I see Yocheved and the midwives working out a plan. Yocheved places the baby in a basket and floats it into the Nile at exactly the time that Pharaoh's daughter, whom Midrash tells us is named Batya (Basya, Bashe), comes down to the water to bathe. Torah doesn't say it, but this cannot be a coincidence. The Underground certainly had this part planned. We don't know how many babies they had already tried to save; how many successfully and how many unsuccessfully. We don't know how many Egyptian women were in on it, and were now raising babies that looked suspiciously Hebrew.
In this case, the floating basket is followed and watched by Miriam, young enough, perhaps, not to alarm the princess's companions or guards. Batya, Pharaoh's daughter, sees the basket and draws it in. She sees the crying baby and her heart is stirred to compassion. She is not fooled. Torah tells us she recognizes a Hebrew baby. And when Miriam approaches and offers the services of a Hebrew wet-nurse, how could the princess not know? Whether planned or not, she throws her lot in with the Hebrews in that moment. Was she an ally already? Was she a palace insider who was part of the resistance? Or was she, as we must be, someone ready in the moment to act correctly when presented with a moral choice? We don't know. But she is honored for that choice. While we don't know what name Yocheved called her baby (Midrash offers a dozen or so possibilities), Torah – and God – only ever refer to him as Moshe, the name given by this brave adoptive mother.
It's a good story. Such a good story. These women who inaugurate the process of liberation through resistance, alliance, sacrifice, risk-taking. It is by merit of Shifrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Batya the righteous Egyptian that we survive.
I don't usually suggest that Torah has messages that are so explicit. I like mining Torah for soul lessons, not political ones. But this story is a story we need right now. We could have had an exodus story in which the Hebrew men rise up in revolution, like Maccabees. But we don't. We have a story about the grit and resistance and subtle decision making of the women and, presumably, the men who were their allies. A story about making alliances and finding friends in unexpected places, including in the palace.
So yes, we will do these things. We will protest and do civil disobedience and we will resist if and when our elected leaders become Pharaohs. We will make consistently moral choices when they arise. And our acts, like those of Shifrah and Puah and Yocheved and Miriam and Batya, will go epic.
To sustain us in our protesting, I want to add a little haftarah, a little enrichment from another text, as is our custom. But the text is not in the Hebrew bible, but rather in words I heard the other night in Boulder from Rick Williams, a Lakota elder of the Standing Rock Sioux. He told us many elements of the story of Standing Rock that we hadn't known. And one thing he said especially stood out for me.
He talked about how when the Native Americans began putting their bodies on the line to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline, the media called them protesters. But in time, as the movement grew, the tribe, in a spelling switcheroo that would make the gematria-driven Chasidim proud, altered the word "protester" to become "protector". Water protectors. Earth protectors. A difference of one or two letters, depending on your spelling practices. But tremendous in its significance.
Because the spelling difference reverses the location of power. Protesters are definitionally on the outside. Power is at the center and protesters array themselves around it. They are, in our cultural imagination, always outside of the building, outside the corporate headquarters, on a street corner. But protectors are at the center, holding the power. And those who try to inflict damage on whatever is being protected, whether that thing is water, or land, or dignity, or safety, or peace – those who try to damage what is being protected are now the rabble at the margin.
Think back to our Hebrew Women's Underground and think of them for a moment not as protesters but as protectors – of life, of dignity, of freedom, of immigrants, of minorities. And now how we hold them in our imagination shifts a little. It makes them larger. It imbues them with a different kind of power – not the daring of a rebel, but deep rooted strength of the earth itself.
And as we move forward marching, praying with our feet as Abraham Joshua Heschel called it, let us think of ourselves too not as protesters but as protectors. We will protect the people of this country, the vulnerable people, the vulnerable country. We will protect the future for our children's children. We will protect each other.
It might take time. There might be hardship. There will be loss. There is already loss. But in this process, in this work, we will be at the center, not at the margin. Protecting what is sacred, like a mother protects her young.
So yes, this is our story. A new king arises, who knows not the good works of his predecessor. Who knows nothing. But we are ready for this moment and all the moments to come.
And we already know how it turns out. After all, we tell this story every year.
I was blessed to hear and be deeply influenced this week by Hazzan Jessi Roemer, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, Rabbi Sue Morningstar, Rabbi David Seidenberg, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and Elder Rick Wilson of the Standing Rock Sioux.