Shabbat Shemot 5780, 17th January 2020
Last week I was asked to write an article about ‘Vision’. What do we mean by ‘vision’ in Judaism? What visions are most meaningful to you? Who are the people of vision today? I thought, of course, of the biblical prophets, Isaiah and Micah particularly, who had such inspiring visions of the future. But when thinking about the people of vision today, I thought of completely different people. I thought of two young girls whose visions had woken up the world to great injustice and suffering. They were Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. Both of them are remarkable, with a maturity beyond their age. Malala faced horrific danger in first writing her blog and then continuing her activism for the education of girls, and nearly lost her life. Greta Thunberg began her activism in far more secure circumstances in Sweden, but she has faced horrible abuse and has continued undeterred. Like the biblical prophets, they have found words to cajole, to warn and to inspire. Greta Thunberg has warned in prophetic style, ‘I want you to act as if your house is on fire… To panic unless you have to is a terrible idea. But when your house is on fire and you want to keep your house from burning to the ground then that does require some level of panic.’ And Malala has wisely said, ‘Traditions are not sent form heaven, they are not sent from God. It is we who make cultures and we have the right to change it and we should change it.’
When Miriam waited to see what became of her baby brother, she must have been a bit younger than Malala and Greta were when they first spoke out. She, too, was a person of vision. According to tradition she was the first ‘nevi’ah’, prophetess. A midrash tells us that because of Pharaoh’s decree to kill baby boys, the Israelites had decided not to have children. But Miriam said to her parents, ‘No, you must have children. Pharaoh wishes to kill one generation but if you do not have children, you will not only destroy one generation but all future generations.’ Then she stood by her brother and watched, and when Pharaoh’s daughter came and rescued the baby, she was there for him and went up to Pharaoh’s daughter to ask if she needed a nursemaid. It must have taken courage to approach the princess, not knowing what her response would be or what danger she faced, but Miriam went anyway.
There is another heroine, too, in this narrative: Pharaoh’s daughter. She recognised immediately that the baby was a Hebrew child, but she did not hesitate. She did not hold the hatred her father had for the Hebrews. Neither did let herself be afraid that she might be punished for taking the child in. She brought it up as her own. Rabbinic legend tells us that Pharaoh’s daughter came to be called ‘Bitya’, meaning ‘the daughter of God’, and adopted the religion of Moses. According to one midrash, she left with the Israelites and married Caleb.
Greta and Malala, Miriam and Bitya, all had the courage to stand up for what is right. There are different sorts of courage, and each showed their courage in different ways: by speaking out, by writing, by standing and waiting until the time came to act, and by showing kindness and compassion despite the risks. What is it about these women, and so many other women and men, who have had the courage to do right even at risk to themselves, to stand up against the majority, to believe in their message enough to speak out even if it makes them unpopular. We meet the first women to show such courage at the end of Chapter 1 of Exodus. They are the midwives Shifrah and Puah and they are probably the first recorded people in history to practice civil disobedience, refusing to follow Pharaoh’s order and kill the baby boys. It is said of the midwives, ‘They feared God.’ The midwives knew that there was something or someone greater than themselves, some power compelling them to act. That sense was so strong that they were willing to risk their lives. So it is with those who stand up for right. They do so not for themselves but for others. They do not see themselves as important but are compelled by a morality which demands of them to put their own needs aside in the needs of a cause or a person which calls to them. We know that whenever such people are asked why they do what they do, they say simply that ‘It was the only thing I could do’ and disclaim that they did anything remarkable.
From their stories we learn that we, too, have the capability to act for good if only we gather courage. We, too, can find the resources within us to act if we look beyond ourselves to something greater, which may be the power we call God, the power of conscience within ourselves. or a love that goes beyond ourselves. We, too, can have vision, and we, too, can work to make our vision a reality. In this troubled world, each of us can do something to help build a better future. Greta Thunberg ended her speech to the Houses of Parliament last April by saying, ‘We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put aside your differences and start acting as you would in a crisis. We children are doing this because we want our hopes and dreams back.’ And then she says, ‘I hope my microphone was on. I hope you could all hear me.’
Let us hear the voices of those who speak out like prophets and let us respond to their call.