Parshat Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1
A few weeks ago, publisher David Suissa reported on the White House Chanukah party he attended: “So, when the president got closer to us and I was prepared to launch my very tame, ‘Mr. President, do you have a message you want to share with the Jews of Los Angeles?’ line, the man to my right launched the most brilliant presidential Chanukah greeting of all time. ‘Mr. President,’ he said in his booming voice, ‘when I told my Christian friend I was coming to a Chanukah party at the White House, he told me, ‘I didn’t know the president was Jewish!’
“The president let out a serious belly laugh. But in all the commotion of people asking other questions and everyone clicking their smartphone cameras, it was easy to lose sight of the president to see if he had anything to say. I kept my eyes straight on him. It was clear that the ‘president was Jewish’ idea had intrigued him. After about three or four seconds, as he was walking away and looking at no one in particular, the president just said, ‘I am, in my soul.’ ”
I wonder what Obama meant. But more importantly, I wonder, must one be Jewish to have a Jewish soul? And then, just what is a Jewish soul?
In this week’s Torah portion we meet Shifra and Puah, who are introduced to us as “Hebrew midwives.” The Hebrew is unclear: Are they midwives to the Hebrews, or are they themselves Hebrews? Some traditional rabbinic commentaries identify the women as Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses. Medieval commentator Abarbanel suggests that the women had “converted to Judaism.”
Most would agree that the midwives, whose very work was bringing life into the world, had reverence for life and, therefore, for God, the source of life. Shifrah and Puah performed the first recorded acts of civil disobedience, acting in accordance with the highest moral principles, challenging an evil government in the name of God.
Were they Hebrew? Were they, perhaps, “Hebrew in their souls?”
Whatever else they were, Shifrah and Puah were righteous, they were compassionate, they were fair, and they were reverent. They brought human beings into the world, but most critically, they brought humanity and human kindness into the world. May the same be true of each one of us.
Rabbi Sharyn Henry is a rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.