I wonder what part of this story you like the best. I wonder what part is most important. I wonder what part is about you, or about us. Here’s what is rising up from this ancient story for me today.
Everyday acts of courage and creativity can change the world. God, our holy trouble-maker, troubles the water and it’s up to us to wade in. God, our strong and gentle midwife, collaborates with us to birth hope and change, to spark revolution.
In November, Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American legislator in the nation. She represents this district, where we are right now. And she is featured on the cover of Time magazine as part of a piece that profiles 46 influential women. Her family fled Somalia when the war began; she was eight years old. After four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, they came to the US. In her interview with Time, Representative Omar explains that her picture of America from afar was “glossy and picturesque.” But when her family arrived in Manhattan, and she saw trash in the street, panhandlers, and many poor and homeless people, she said to her father, “This doesn’t look like the America you promised.” Omar describes the process of coming to terms with the complexity of America:
Somalia is a majority black Muslim country and so is the camp in Kenya. When you’re growing up in an environment where your faith and your race are not topics of conversation, it’s really hard to come to an environment where all of that means something. Being black in the US means something. There’s a history. Being an immigrant, a refugee, Muslim—all of those things represent an otherness that is not typical or easily confined into the social fabric of this country. As someone who grew up never really having to feel less than, it’s a hard reality to wake up to when you’re 12. I had to figure out what it meant to be a bridge builder—what it meant to forge relationships that really never existed becomes the backstory to how I ended up where I am.
For me, Representative Omar’s story parallels those of the courageous and creative women who protected the infant Moses.
Last year when we studied the big stories of Genesis, I drew from the analysis of Tikva Freymer-Kensky, a feminist biblical scholar who was one of my professors at the University of Chicago. I’m going back to some of her wonderful commentaries once again as we tackle Exodus. In her book Reading the Women of the Bible, she muses over the interaction between Pharaoh and the midwives, Shifrah and Pu’ah. Freymer-Kensky notes that when Pharaoh orders the midwives to kill the baby boys of the Hebrews,
[They] make an independent moral decision. Fearing God, they refuse to obey immoral orders…. Called on the carpet [by Pharaoh, for their disobedience], they do not declare their defiance in what would have been both a futile and fatal act of frontal resistance. Instead they trick Pharaoh, belittling the Israelite women as “animals” who give birth so quickly that they need no midwives. The word hayyot, “animals” is too often softened in translation to “lively.”… Not seeing the power of these women to defy him. Pharaoh is all too willing to hear something negative about Hebrews and falls for their trick.” (pp. 25-26)
In defying Pharaoh, on the one hand, these midwives acted with extraordinary courage and creativity. On the other hand, they simply did their everyday work. They went about what they knew how to do, what came to them naturally. They followed their ethic and their instinct as midwives: to preserve life, to support families, to nurture community. Some rabbinic commentators puzzle over how two midwives could be enough to serve what was apparently a very large population of Hebrews. They hypothesize that Shifrah and Pu’ah were not the only midwives, that they were essentially community organizers, leading hundreds of women in the everyday, ordinary, and defiant work of birthing and protecting babies.
The midwives are not the only women in the story who acted with courage and creativity. Freymer-Kensky remarks: “Pharaoh has a problem. Just as he took no heed of daughters [in ordering the male children to be killed but letting the girls live], daughters take no heed of him.” (p. 26)
Moses’ mother subverts Pharaoh’s order. She does indeed place the boy child in the Nile, but in a way that will give him a chance. In this, she does not act alone, for her own daughter, the child’s sister, goes to keep watch. Yet another daughter—Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby…. The three women…enter into a conspiracy to save the child.” (pp. 27, 28)
These three women came together across seemingly unbridgeable divides of culture, religion, and power. As Ilhan Omar puts it, they were bridge builders, forging a relationship that had never really existed before. If they had not waded into those God-troubled waters, then the Exodus would never have happened. Without these coworkers, collaborators, our midwife God could not have brought to birth hope and change, could not have sparked a revolution. Freedom would have been impossible…for Israel, freedom from slavery and for Egypt, some degree of freedom from the soul-killing ways of tyranny.
In a video that accompanies the Time article about Representative Omar, footage appears of the visit our president made to the MSP airport as a candidate. The clip records his claim that there are “large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval.” Omar responds to these words, saying: “At some point [the campaign] became more than about me and about the win or the loss…. It became about changing the narrative.”
In our time, those holding power are using our human differences to create a narrative of fear so that they can divide us, polarize us, and even enslave us. In this context, a bridge-building and relationship-forging stance like Omar’s is the only thing that can change the narrative, shift the paradigm, spark revolution. This is work that is done on a small scale, person to person. We must have courage to say to someone not like ourselves, “This is who I am, in all the fullness of my identity,” and then ask, “Who are you?” and listen non-defensively. We need creativity to find common ground, so that differences don’t amount to intractable chasms.
So, let us remember our own sacred story, and draw strength from it. Everyday acts of courage and creativity can change the world. God, our holy trouble-maker, troubles the water and it’s up to us to wade in. God, our strong and gentle midwife, collaborates with us to birth hope and change, to spark revolution.