How free are you? Politically, how free do you feel and how free are you in actuality? Emotionally, to what extent are you informed by your emotions versus being bossed around by them? Socially, how free are you to express yourself, to be fully yourself, in which situations, and to what extent? Ethically, how free are you in your life to do what you know is right versus being driven by other demands to compromise in various ways? Spiritually, to what extent do you experience yourself being free to explore a spiritual life, separate from however you were brought up, and separate from the social expectations around you?
As we read Parshat Shemot last week, the story of Israelite slavery and eventual Exodus, we were all enjoined to ask our own questions about the extent to which we are all enslaved and free… I imagine most of us find ourselves somewhere on a spectrum between having no choice in any particular area in our lives, as opposed to complete and unbridled freedom. This reality forces the next question: How do we face the realities of our titrated freedom, and what might we learn from Parshat Shemot to help us in this most basic of life’s challenges?
Essential to the freedom from Egypt (in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, referring to any place or experience of narrowness, suffering, pain, what we call in Yiddish - tzuras), are the stories of not just one man, Moses, but many women. Yocheved, his mother, had the courage to both hide him, and the knowledge of the palace and it’s dynamics to know that the Pharoahs daughter might be sympathetic to saving her child from certain death. Miriam, who supported her mother as a child, was the go-between from the palace servants and her mother, and who led the women, side by side as an adult with her brother Moses. The Midwives, Shifra and Puah, who had the courage to stand up to the most powerful man and tyrant of their time, and the street smarts to know how to keep him in the dark about their actual plans. Last, but in some ways most surprising, is the Pharoah’s daughter, who had the empathy and Holy Chutzpah, to go against her own father, and probably everything she had ever heard about the Israelites, and risk her comfortable life to protect a child not her own.
How do we develop the kind of freedom that Shifra and Puah, and the Daughter of Pharoah exercised? How can we do that without waiting for, God forbid, actual slavery, or some other war-like conditions? How do we develop the inner muscles to act in the way that we know is right, in our day-to-day lives? How do we free our selves from our own Mitzrayim (experiences of slavery, wherever and however, they may happen geographically)?
Humanity has wrestled with some form of these questions for as long as we know. There are no simple or definitive answers, but I want to share three guideposts I think we might find in our Parshah. First, freedom requires that we know our own selves, that we know who we are, where we came from, the stories of our people, and the stories of our own names. It is no accident that this portion begins with a list of the names of Jacob’s children, and that we know the names of most of our female leaders. A person who knows their name, literally and metaphorically, who knows their own worth, their weaknesses and their strengths, as well as their roots - that person is hard to put down and control. That person can feel comfortable in a room with diverse opinions and beliefs, knowing that difference is not a threat, and knowing that egotism is not power.
Second, we must be able to cry out. In Parshat Shemot, we read that God hears that people when they cry out, and only then reaches out to Moses, and only then does the plan for the Exodus begin to manifest itself. We cannot free ourselves from any of our sufferings without first being able to acknowledge the pain, to be honest with ourselves about it, and to reach out to others for help. It is not easy to cry, to scream, nor to ask for help. We live in a culture which too often labels those actions as “overly emotional” or weak. A societal label does not make something true. One who is able to be honest with their emotions, can better use those to guide themselves instead of being driven by them like a volcano waiting to explode. A person who can ask for help, has a whole village at their fingertips to help raise themselves up.
Third: Yirah, or Yirat Adonai. This is usually translated as “fear of God,” but it is anything but fear. Hebrew has other words for the kind of fear that is the fear of punishment. Yirah is an experience of awe combined with fear. Some say that it’s the emotion one feels when standing on a mountain top, or a cliff, sensing the grandeur of creation, one’s smallness, as well as the danger of falling down. However, more apropo, especially in this Torah portion, is a metaphor I first heard from female classmates in Rabbinic School: Yirah is the awe and fear one experiences in childbirth. It is the awe of life, the potential of an infant, the weight of parental responsibility, and every emotion mixed together in their most poignant forms. All of that together, that is true Yirah.
So I leave you with a prayer, a hope, and a challenge. As we continue to move into 2018, may we all continue to grow deep roots and in our understanding of ourselves, may we develop a greater freedom to cry out and ask for support, and may we all find ways to live with greater Yirah - the kind of awe, wonder, humility, and responsibility, that will help us give birth to our fullest potential, and bring healing and healthy freedom to as many people around us as possible!