Friday, January 13, 2012

MLK Day 2012: Crossing Boundaries to Save the World

There’s been a great deal in the news recently about the rising tensions between the United States and Iran. Iran has argued that their territorial sovereignty extends into the Persian Gulf. And we’ve argued that they have no right to close the international waters around the Strait of Hormuz, which would have an immediate global impact on oil prices and the world economy.

But while all of that bluster has been exchanged by both sides, two related stories were largely ignored by the American press. Did you know that the US military has come to the aid of Iranians in danger twice in the last two weeks?! Ten days ago, the US Navy rescued 13 Iranian fishermen who had been held hostage for more than a month by dangerous Somali pirates. And then, this past Tuesday, the US Coast Guard saved the lives of six Iranian sailors, whose cargo ship was sinking.

Isn’t it remarkable that we’ve done these acts of lovingkindness for a country that is an acknowledged enemy and threat? Our own military doesn’t want to take any credit, insisting that humanitarian missions are a regular part of its mission. But sacrificing oneself for the enemy….or for anyone who is markedly different from you is remarkable in this day and age….and is in my opinion, and in the opinion of our Jewish tradition, worthy of recognition.

That message is especially relevant this weekend, as people of all faiths and colors gather together to celebrate the life of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. We Jews can look back at the Civil Rights Movement with pride…as a high point in the ongoing relationship between African Americans and Jewish Americans. Different though we might have been, we bound ourselves together for one of the great legislative fights of the last century. And even though relations between the Jewish community and black community have frayed in the present day, we can look back in pride at our shared past….and be inspired to work together again for a better future.

This value is also deeply reflected in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot…the very first portion of the Book of Exodus. Before we learn of the birth of Moses, we learn of Pharaoh’s genocidal order that the male babies of all Jewish mothers be murdered. And that Pharaoh expected the midwives…the women that actually helped to deliver these babies….to carry out the horrible death sentence.

Take a look at the exact way that the Torah conveys the plight of the midwives: "The king of Egypt spoke la’mi’yaldot ha-ivriyot […] saying: “When you deliver the Hebrew women […] if it is a boy, kill him…” (Exod. 1:15-16). The rabbis of the Talmud 2000 years ago were puzzled by the unique language that the Torah used here. To describe the midwives the text says mi’yaldot ha-ivriyot – the problem with the phrase is that it can be translated two different ways! Either as the Hebrew midwives….which would mean that the midwives were themselves Jewish. Or: the midwives of the Hebrews, which opens up the possibility that the midwives were not Jewish, but were rather Egyptian.

Okay, so there is an established tradition that the midwives were Jewish. But, in all honesty, I find the other interpretation to be more compelling. A number of sources and rabbis have suggested over the centuries that the midwives Shifrah and Puah were actually righteous gentiles….non-Jews who courageously stood up for right, and good, to save the Jewish people! According to this reading, the fact that the midwives were not Jewish makes their actions even more heroic and remarkable.

Now, there are some in our community today who would suggest that the religious identity of Shifrah and Puah does not matter. None other than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the well respected Orthodox chief rabbi of Great Britain, once wrote that: “The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race.”

For Sacks, their religion doesn’t matter. What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. And the midwives did the right thing. Their actions should be applauded. End of story.

But, with all due respect to Rabbi Sacks….I’m not sure that I see it that way. It seems to me that our identities – who we are at our very core – make all the difference in the world. And that it is infinitely easier for us to do an act of lovingkindness for someone that is just like us….someone that we can totally and completely identify with. Whether it’s someone that is from our same religious community, or who is the same skin color, or who speaks the same language with the same accent, or whose kids go to the same school as our’s, or who live in the same neighborhood, or who drive the same car, etc etc etc…..we naturally identify with, and are more easily sympathetic to…the people that are like us.

That’s why the notion that Shifrah and Puah were not Jewish is so amazing to me. At a time when the Israelites were reviled in Egypt as worthless third class citizens destined to a life of hard labor, these non-Jewish midwives swept in, and not only saved the lives of those babies that were born under their care….but literally saved the entire Jewish people as well. We Jews would not be here today if it wasn’t for them.

I can’t think of a more apt reflection on this Martin Luther King Day Weekend. We don’t just celebrate his life and work….we celebrate all of the people from outside of the black community who came together in the common spirit of humanity to stand with African Americans in the fight toward equality. And as we celebrate that partnership…a partnership that was not unlike the one that existed between the non-Jews Shifrah and Puah and the Jewish women they worked with…may we be inspired to reach across boundaries again today. To think again about those who are different from us….but who nonetheless deserve our compassion and our aid….in order that we might join together to unify and heal our most fractured world.

Shabbat Shalom.

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