This Shabbat we start reading the book of Shemot (Exodus). And the first parshah takes us quickly into the land of women.
For any of the men reading this, be aware that I am venturing into female territory – discussing ‘womens’ things. To refer to the sage advise of Bette Davis: fasten your seatbelts, boys, you’re in for a bumpy ride.
To begin, there are topics women discuss easily with each other and the moment these topics arise I witness men finding ways to leave the room. When I was young, if my sister and I ever mentioned our periods, my brothers couldn’t get away fast enough. When my daughters likewise mentioned it, my sons would diplomatically excuse themselves and only come back into the room after checking if it was ‘safe’.
But for women, these kinds of topics are so much part of our reality, so frequently part of our mundane, that we forget not everyone around us shares these things. When my oldest daughter began her cycles, I went through all the beautiful concepts of maturity and womanhood with her. Everything was perfect until she realized this would happen every month. She was then pretty angry – it’s beautiful once in a while but what did I mean EVERY month?!? By the time my youngest daughter crossed that threshold she was so used to hearing about it from her sisters that she had no hesitation communicating why she was moody. I had to put my foot down when she would curl into a ball, snap at her brothers and then exclaim: ‘Leave me alone, my ovaries are killing me!”
What is mundane and routine for one gender can be totally opaque to the other. I remember the predicament of watching feminine hygiene commercials with my sons in the room. They weren’t curious about what the products were for (they were quite young at the time) but they were livid that girls get something with ‘wings’ and they don’t. In their minds their sisters get to be airborne with these things – why don’t they get to fly too?!
We all get to a point of accepting that some things will be natural to one gender and somewhat enigmatic to the other.
I raise all this because this week’s parshah talks about Israelite women giving birth in Egypt and the midwives who attend them. Pharaoh has issued an edict for the midwives to kill all the baby boys. The midwives refuse. But why would Pharaoh command midwives to do his dirty work? He has soldiers, he has unlimited ways to get the job done. The problem he faces is that while a conquered people will endure almost anything, they do it in the hopes that the future for their children will be better. People will bear the burdens put upon them as long as they feel they can protect their children. If a tyrant targets the children, he is risking a revolt. Pharaoh is a brilliant tyrant, we see it again and again in text. He is instructing the midwives to kill the baby boys on the birthing stones so the mothers won’t know what they did. Present the baby as stillborn.
And here is where we delve into the world of women. In the ancient world, women did not give birth lying on a bed. That would be silly, because then the women are pushing a baby laterally while gravity is pulling the baby downward. Women would squat on stones that allowed gravity to help with the delivery. As any pregnant woman can tell you, there comes a point in the pregnancy when your can no longer see anything below your belly button. Whatever is below that sight line is a blind spot. So, a woman giving birth in ancient Egypt cannot see the baby birthing. The midwife will narrate everything and then produce a baby…or not.
But these midwives, these women in charge of ushering life into the world, defy Pharaoh’s edict. So he commands that the babies be ‘given’ to the Nile. Make it a religious sacrifice – anything but an open attack on the children.
Pharaoh is set up in the text as the destroyer, while the women are set up as the life givers and Egypt now represents a world of black and white. When Moses is born, he is a male rescued by women and named for Pharoah’s daughter. He is the intersecting moment of black and white that produces the grey zone. It is only then that Israel can be redeemed.
Often times in today’s world, we crave the simplicity of black and white definitions. We leave the room when we don’t want to hear the other opinion or entertain another point of view. We might think we’re avoiding being uncomfortable, but maybe avoiding Egypt is worth a bit of discomfort