The 18th of Tevet (which corresponds to January 3 this year) is Abraham Joshua Heschel’s yahrzeit. In addition to being a brilliant theologian, scholar and teacher, and a magnificent, eloquent, and elegant writer, Heschel was also a great social activist.
Leaders of the Catholic Church, including the Pope, used to affectionately refer to him as “Father Abraham.” Heschel was a consultant to Vatican II, the gathering in the early 1960’s that led to many formal changes in the Catholic Church. One change included a reckoning with history where Church leaders announced publicly that “the Jews did not kill Christ.”
Heschel was also active in the Civil Rights Movement. He did not just walk with Martin Luther King (MLK) on a march for social justice. Heschel was a close personal friend. The two were known to mentor one another in their conversations. There is an iconic picture of King and Heschel walking in line together on the famous “Selma” to Montgomery march for voter registration in Alabama in 1965. Each year, Americans celebrate King’s birthday with a national holiday, falling this year on Monday, January 18.
In between the yahrtzeit and the national holiday, on January 9, we have perhaps the best Torah portion we could read to mark both occasions. In Shemot, at the very beginning of the book, we read about four heroic women who each demonstrate courage with acts of nonviolent social disobedience. To do what is right, they each risked their lives going against the immoral rules and laws of their time.
One heroic woman we meet is Yocheved, Moses’s mother. At a time when her people are enslaved, at a time when a Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph,” issues the evil decree to kill all newborn Hebrew baby boys, what does she do? Yocheved gets married, again; becomes pregnant; and gives birth to Moses. In responding to Pharaoh, this is perhaps the most brave act of faith and defiance one can think of.
It is remarkable that you can find individual women throughout the ages, like Yocheved, who show such faith, defiance and will to survive. In the Warsaw Ghetto, couples got married. In the Warsaw ghetto, mothers gave birth to children.
A second and a third heroic woman in the parshah is Shifrah and Puah. They are midwives who help mothers give birth to babies. It is not clear from the text whether Shiphrah and Puah are Hebrew or Egyptian. What is clear is that they each assist Hebrew women when they give birth to their children.
When Pharaoh issues his evil decree, he summons Shiphrah and Puah and gives them an order. “If the [Hebrew] child you deliver is a boy, kill him. If the baby is a girl, let her live.”
How do Shifrah and Puah respond to the order? They do what some workers do when their boss tells them to do something immoral. They do what most people do when ordered to do something they don’t want to do. They come up with an excuse for why they can’t fulfill the order. They say “Oh, the Hebrew women are too vigorous. By the time we arrive to help them, they have already given birth and are gone.”
The fourth heroic woman is Pharaoh’s own daughter. She finds a baby in a basket floating on the edge of the Nile River. From the garment that is wrapped around the baby, and from her father’s evil decree, she knows the child is obviously Hebrew. What does she do? She defies her father, the king’s command, and takes the child into her arms and into the palace and raises him as her own son.
Four courageous women! Four women each performing nonviolent civil disobedience.
When I hear words like “civil disobedience” and “nonviolent resistance”, I usually picture King or Gandhi leading a great movement of people. The first two chapters of the book of Exodus reminds us that one does not need to be part of a great movement of people to muster the courage necessary to go against a rule or law when the rule or law is wrong. Individuals on their own can, and do, demonstrate such bravery.
My father’s birthday this year also falls between Heschel’s yahrtzeit and the national holiday. When he died in 1994, I received a wonderful gift at his funeral.
There was a little old man who sat in the third row of the chapel where the funeral service took place. This little old man stood out to me because he was sitting up front and was not part of our family or a close family friend. This little old man stood out to me because he was mumbling to himself.
When the funeral service ended and we were all walking out to the grave site, this little old man stopped me for a brief moment, put his hand on my arm, and said, “Your father was my doctor. I was recently in the hospital. After two days, the hospital wanted to send me home. Your father saw that I was not ready to go. Your father would not discharge me, he wouldn’t sign the papers until I was ready. … I will never forget that.”
ELLIOT FEIN is a retired Jewish religious educator who lives in Orange County and a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.