Shemot – ‘Names’ – Sanctity Of Human Life Weekend 2017

Being on the Right Side of (Repeated) History

Our Torah reading this Shabbat bears the same name as the book it introduces: Shemot meaning “names”. The English name for the book, Exodus, is borrowed from Greek, and means “the way out”. It reflects the real, historical, monumental event of Israel leaving Egypt as a free people. Elsewhere in Scripture God speaks of the Exodus as our having been given birth[1]; and as you well know, before the delight of a child’s birth comes the distress of birth pains. Biblical history is replete with examples of terrible upheaval preceding the mighty and redemptive acts of God.

Exodus opens with a list of names (hence the Hebrew title: shemot) – we are reintroduced to the sons of Jacob at the time they went down to Egypt. They will become the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. That generation, including Joseph, all died in Egypt. Years later a new king came to power, one who had no regard for the memory of Joseph. Instead of appreciating Joseph for having literally saved Egypt, this pharaoh became consumed with fear at the burgeoning Jewish population, and treated us as enemies. Hoping to diminish our numbers, he decreed that our people be enslaved. But his population control plan didn’t work. Far from shrinking, our numbers increased – dramatically.

Pharaoh, now in a panic, issues an infamous edict: all Israeli newborn boys are to be put to death; an atrocity which would be repeated 1,400 years later, and for much the same reasons, by another wicked king named Herod. It is in the nature of Satan to steal and kill and destroy. He has tried repeatedly through history, always unsuccessfully, yet with tragic results, to annihilate the Jewish people. He has used heads of state, like just so many pawns on a chess board, to do his bidding. But why stop at just killing the Jews?

The sin of abortion

It is no coincidence that this passage of the Torah is read each year within days of the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton, the despicable and murderous tandem decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court, on Jan. 22, 1973.

In 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 926,000 abortions committed in the United States. In the 44 years since the Court’s decision, over 59 million babies have been killed by abortion in our once-great nation. Closer to home, in 2014, there were 29,120 abortions committed in Michigan.[2] Numerically, that’s the equivalent of putting to death every single person living in Oak Park.

You and I know full well what abortion is. It is the willful, forcible taking of a unique, individual human life; a baby boy or girl with their own unique DNA, their own blood type, their own beating heart, their own fingerprints. Abortionists and those who defend what they do refuse even to call their victims ‘babies’. Instead, the words ‘fetus’ or ‘product of conception’ are used. They can’t afford to let people think of them as human beings, since that would lead them to conclude that this is murder. And they don’t even use the word ‘abortion’ if they can help it; preferring to call it ‘reproductive choice’. The wordsmithing they employ is appallingly dishonest.

Does anyone doubt that abortion is the most pivotal moral issue of our generation? Is there any other issue which elicits such contention and passionate debate as this one facing our country? Every other issue, every other point of practical or philosophical debate takes a back seat to the issue of the sanctity of human life – life at every stage. Consider the words of Job: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.[3]

The defiant courage and heroism of Shifrah and Puah

But let’s return to the parasha. Pharaoh has issued an edict, calling for the killing of every Israeli baby boy. He gives direct orders to the Jewish midwives about this. The birthing process in the ancient world was done from a squatting position. Thus, the woman giving birth couldn’t see what the midwife was doing below her. The midwives could actually have gotten away with strangling the baby boys and telling the mothers that the babies had been stillborn.

But Scripture tells us the midwives feared God. And because they feared God, they deliberately defied Pharaoh’s order, even lying to the king’s face about it. Now when you lie to cover up your own mistakes, you sin. But these courageous women lied in order to save lives –  others’ lives. And they were blessed by God for it – not only were they given families of their own, but Shifrah and Puah are forever remembered with honor in the Scriptures!

History has given us other examples of men and women of courage who defied the authorities in order to save the lives of others. Rahab is also named in God’s Word, having lied to the king of Jericho in order to rescue the lives of the two Israeli spies. During WWII, a handful of courageous Christians, lying to the faces of Nazi soldiers, risked their own lives by hiding Jewish people in their homes, and later helped them flee Europe.

The examples of Shifrah and Puah and Rahab and a few others gave rise to the Jewish doctrine known as Pikuach Nefesh (‘saving a life’); namely, that rescuing the life of a human being transcends and supersedes every other commandment, because human life is uniquely created in the image of God.

The sovereign plan of God

And so, as our parasha continues, Moses is born in just such dangerous times, and his birth is kept hidden from Pharaoh. But eventually it becomes impossible to conceal his existence, and so his mother, Yocheved, places him in a basket, committing him into God’s hands. Those are powerful hands! God steers that basket right into the presence of Pharaoh’s daughter, who opens it to discover this beautiful baby, draws him out (hence the name ‘Moshe’ – from masha ‘to draw out’) and adopts him as her own son. This Jewish boy Moses was raised in the royal palace. Talk about flying under the enemy’s radar – one of the ones condemned becomes one of the elite!

As an adult, Moses is grieved at the plight of his people. One day he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and strikes the Egyptian down. When Pharaoh learns of it, Moses is forced to flee Egypt. He arrives in Midian, where he helps the daughters of Jethro, who is the priest there, and is given one of them, Zipporah, as a wife. In contrast to his first 40 years lived in luxury, Moses’ next 40 years are spent shepherding his father-in-law’s flock – a thankless and difficult task in a rugged environment. All the while, our people were suffering terribly under Egypt’s taskmasters, and this did not escape God’s notice.

Adonai appears to Moses at Horeb supernaturally – a burning bush that somehow doesn’t burn up. He directs Moses to return to Egypt and deliver His people. Moses is extremely reluctant, but God gives him signs to perform, promising that Israel will emerge, and the proof of it will be that they will return to that very spot and worship Him! God reveals Himself in that moment as the Yod Hay Vav Hay – what we call the Tetragrammaton – a name signifying His infinite nature. Adonai declares that He is to be remembered forever as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

God tells Moses to assemble Israel’s leaders and together to go to Pharaoh to demand their release. Moses is forewarned that Pharaoh will resist and that God will strike Egypt with His wonders. God also promises that Israel will leave Egypt with great riches (or you could call it back wages for 400 years of unpaid labor)! When Moses continues to be reluctant, citing his lack of eloquence, God appoints Moses’ brother Aaron to be his spokesperson (you didn’t know he had a press secretary?), and commands him to go.

So Moses takes Zipporah and his sons, and begins the return trip to Egypt. But Moses’ house is not “in order”. His son (either Gershom or Eliezer [cf. 1 Chron. 23:15] had not been circumcised according to the Abrahamic covenant. The text tells us that God sought to put Moses to death, and the best way to understand this difficulty is that Moses became deathly ill at the lodge where they had stopped. Zipporah, not Moses (who may have been too debilitated) circumcises their son, but she is none too happy about this Hebrew ritual, calling Moses “a bridegroom of blood”. That seems to have been the issue, as Moses did not die, and continued the trip back to Egypt.

Events there come to pass just as God foretold. Moses assembles the elders, they believe when they see the signs God gave him, they go to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh refuses to release them. In fact, Pharaoh is so angered at their audacity that he effectively doubles their workload. Their reaction? They blamed Moses!

And so our parasha ends at what appears initially to be abject failure – the sons of Israel are worse off than before. But this is exactly what God forewarned would happen, and it will set the stage for the demonstration of God’s cosmic power, as plagues will be unleashed on Egypt. And what do we learn of God through this parasha? We learn that He cares about the welfare of His people, and that He keeps His promises.

Meanwhile – A Call to Action

What Shifrah and Puah did constitutes the most commendable form of civil disobedience. They risked their own lives to save the lives of those Jewish baby boys. They knew full well that Pharaoh could have them put to death for defiance. What risks are you willing to take to defend the lives of those targeted for slaughter? Would you allow yourself to be inconvenienced? Would you allow yourself to be mocked and ridiculed?

You know, every time Satan ever fomented a slaughter, he used unwitting human beings to carry out his purposes. At the time of Moses’ birth it was Pharaoh whose fear of losing power led to mass infanticide. In the days of the Persian Empire it was Haman who sought to annihilate our people. And there was yet another slaughter of babies in Israel’s history. In the First Century, Herod, the Judean king, also paranoid at the thought of losing his power, and hearing that the Messiah had been born, sent his soldiers to kill every Jewish baby boy in Judea.

And every time a murderous decree was issued, there were other human beings who stood up to the evil, often at great personal risk. Unfortunately, there has always been the silent and fearful majority, who played it safe; who hedged their bets; who wanted to appear neutral and non-judgmental. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, passivity – neutrality, during a time of moral evil, is itself evil.

The greatest moral evil of our day isn’t Islamic terrorism. It’s the innocent blood we have on our collective hands through the legalization and proliferation of abortion. My question is this: Do you long to see this moral evil come to an end? Then let me ask you another question: What are you prepared to do about it? Will you be an abolitionist? Will you take action? I want you to think about whether you have true convictions, or just opinions.

God rewards those who risk their own lives to save the lives of others. The Jewish midwives of Exodus are remembered by name in the Word of God for having defied Pharaoh! Are you willing to put yourself at risk to rescue others? We are called to defend the defenseless. May we be willing to put aside, if necessary, our popularity, our comfort, our convenience, even our lives, in order to stand up against the evil that pervades our society. May God give us the courage to be the Shifrahs and Puahs of our day.

[1] See, for example, Deuteronomy 32:18 and Isaiah 66:8

[2] The Alan Guttmacher Institute is the information arm of  Planned Parenthood Federation.

[3] Job 12:7-10[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]