Shemot 5780/Sat 18th JAn 2020
by Michael Lomotey
The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.
So far we’ve read in the Torah about Joseph and his coat of many colours. About Joseph saving Egypt from famine and the children of Israel moving to Egypt. Now the book turns to Moses, to oppression and eventual liberation.
This whole part of the Torah is about slavery and leaving Egypt. Oppression and liberation and a very clear instruction to remember that we were once slaves and to not treat a stranger in the same way. Very powerful stories.
Shemot is the name of this week’s parashah and it means names, indeed the very first verse names mentioned are the 11 sons of Jacob (but not Dinah, their sister). Joseph was already in Egypt, but he is added to the list in the second verse.
So Shemot, names, it most likely refers to Jacob’s children, but there are other names here too, very significant ones.
Miriam, the queen of water appears first here, she watches over Moses her brother and helps pharaoh’s daughter find a nurse for him. And two midwives, Shifrah and Puah are named. We also find Zipporah in this portion; her husband was Moses. Despite how androcentric – which means centred on men – how androcentric the Torah is, the book does not assign things lightly. Oh no. Therefore, naming all of these women is very significant – we know that they all do something that is very transformative for their society.
Miriam leads the Israelites in song and dance with her Timbrel. The timbrel is not a tambourine but archaeology tells us it was a type of drum shaped like a tambourine but without the jingles (my technical word). How it was used is that the women set the rhythm for song and the led the beat, most likely alongside dancing. How significant is dance to humanity, even as a form of worship?
Miriam led the song and dance at the sea of reeds after liberation from Egypt, but that’s jumping ahead.
Nevertheless, her inspiration carries on and was used recently to design a tambourine by the Judaica artist Betsy Platkin Teutsch. The artwork featured Miriam sitting on a chair flying over to make up a minyan for a study or prayer session at the Kotel. The design was sold in support of the Women of the Wall.
I overstand that it was inspired as a tongue in cheek snub to the thugs who had thrown chairs over the boundary separator to the gallant women trying to read Torah. The chairs became a symbol of the struggle and were claimed by the women of the wall. The artwork on the Tambourine is named “Thanks for the chair”.
Shifrah and Puah are the names of two midwives that the new pharaoh – who doesn’t know Joseph – tells them to destroy the male Hebrew babies. Shifrah and Puah in the face of adversity defy pharaoh and save the children alive, powerful names, very powerful.
Zipporah is the next name I want to mention. Her husband was Moses. Zipporah is the heroine of an usual incident that takes place just after he has been told by a burning bush to ‘go down Moses, way down to egypts land. Tell old, pharhaoh, to let my people go’.
Zipporah’s name means “bird” and in the Torah she is painted as heroic and fearless, standing up to G-d and so saving Moses life.
Shemot, these are the names of the children of Jacob who went down to Egypt.
They went to Egypt due to famine.
Our ancestors were climate refugees.
So there’s a long connection running to what’s happening in our own times. The famine that drove Jacob to seek succour in Egypt was likely caused by drought. Drought is one of the impacts that a warming world brings.
We know that the world is warming, the science about it is uncontested. And what the warming brings is challenges in many parts of the UK and all around the world. Fairbourne village in mid-Wales is sinking. There are plans to decommission the village soon creating hundreds of displaced villagers, climate refugees right here in the UK. We’ve all watched in dismay at the war in Syria which was caused by an almost perfect storm of failings one of which was severe drought. Crop failure and incompetence with managing water resource and infrastructure. These all combined to inflame unrest and eventually the uprising against the government. Climate change was a factor in the unrest and refugee numbers continue to grow.
Climate change is having impacts around Lake Chad in the Sahel and it is a major concern. Rising temperatures and erratic rain patterns mean food supplies are threatened, land use is contested, and they all wreak havoc on security in the region. 30 million people rely on Lake Chad, so the consequences are severe. People are pushed into the hands of insurgents, boko haram or become refugees.
The world is facing an immensely difficult time. We’ve seen a shift towards populism all across the world and in Europe. Poland is driving ever closer to authoritarianism. They are refusing openly to take specifically Muslim refugees which strikes at the heart of humanity and is contrary to Jewish values.
Do not wrong the stranger, as you were strangers in a strange land it goes on to say in Exodus.
‘Remembering we were slaves in Egypt’ is frequent in our prayer liturgy and we should see each usage as remembering we were climate refugees and think about the plight of climate refugees all over the world. We need extra onus on our Jewish values to give us hope that we can stem the tide of stress.
Go out and support an organisation that supports refugees. Or even better, do some personal solidarity and make contact yourself in whichever way feels appropriate to you. We have activists and campaigners in our community who I am sure would be happy to share resources or their knowledge on where and what to do.
There is an urgent need to strengthen our wider community especially after the recent election and referendum. Use the discord you may feel, not as something to feel dejected about but as a catalyst for performing unifying actions. Solidarity not extractivism should be our watchword. Hand out compassion to everyone and everything. You know the natural world in some places has legal status? So, don’t’ forget the rivers and trees, the plants and animals have rights too. In your mind actually play out how you feel about inclusion, about outreach and making peace and how you will do a positive action over the next weeks.
Jewish values on the environment point to justice matters.
Miriam, the midwives Shifrah and Puah, Zipporah and even Pharaoh’s daughter give lessons on how to behave under adversity. In the face of the climate and ecological emergency we should learn from them.
We are in a struggle for liberation, a liberation that is similar to how the anti-Semitic pharaoh
oppressed the Israelites. Make sure your own name is proudly associated with liberation.