Shabbat Message: The Wisdom of the Midwife: First Breathe,Then Push

Posted on January 8, 2021 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Two days have passed since the violent attack on the Capitol and many, if not most, of us are still in shock. If we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes, we likely would not have believed it could happen -— not here, not in America. To this I say: thank God this is America. For had the events of Wednesday happened in almost any other country, it likely would have marked the end of democracy and the rule of law.

That didn’t happen, and it is now clear that it will not happen. Yet, it is also clear how dangerously close we came to the edge of darkness. The armed insurrectionists who desecrated the hallowed halls of Congress could easily have done much greater harm. Thank God, that didn’t happen.

As Jews, such events touch deep wounds and evoke painful collective memories of times when our lives have been shattered by the unrestrained abuse of power by tyrants. Weimar Germany was a free and enlightened society where Jewish life flourished, then it gave way to the rise of Hitler. Persia, so the Purim story tells us, was a place where a Jewish woman could become the queen, and we know how that tale nearly ended. Spain was once a place where Jews rose to the highest levels of power, influence, and status, before the country turned to persecution, inquisition, and expulsion. How do we not fear for our future when we see an angry and violent mob laying siege to the halls of Congress, threatening the lives of our leaders and the institutions of our democracy?

As Shabbat arrives, I am sure that many of you are feeling strong and painful emotions. I know that that I am. We have experienced a trauma that will leave its mark on our souls and will not be forgotten. We need to heal, as American citizens and as Jews, and that will take time. It is appropriate for us to feel grief, to feel violated, even to cry. On Wednesday we experienced loss on many levels; it is appropriate that we allow ourselves to feel and express our pain.

As we do, we should also engage in soul searching. This crisis must not be allowed to pass without considering what lessons we can learn from it. For Jews, the lens through which we examine life’s vicissitudes is Torah, and, as is so often the case, this week’s Torah portion offers us valuable insight.

As we begin the Book of Exodus, the Children of Israel are living in safety and prosperity in Egypt, until a new Pharaoh arises. He is a paranoid demagogue who seeks to demonize minorities to accrue power. His main weapon is words. “Look,” he says, “the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase… [and] join our enemies in fighting against us….” (Ex. 1:9-10) As we saw this week, so, too, in ancient days, did words of hate lead to acts of violence. Lies masquerading as truth incited atrocities —ruthless oppression, the murder of our children, and the ultimate enslavement of our entire people.

The demagogue’s hope lies in division. It depends upon the isolation of the oppressed that leaves them to be the helpless prey of the oppressor. It traffics in fear that begets silence and cowardly complicity. Surely, we have witnessed just such cowardice in our own day in the acquiescence to bald-faced lies about the security of our elections.

Thank God, there is an antidote to the poison of such prevarication and intimidation, and it is found in the courage to speak truth to power —to defend those who are demonized. Our nation’s most recent heroes are those Republicans who stood up for democracy and truth and refused to be intimidated or cowed into corruption. Like the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh’s decree of death upon our children, we owe a debt of honor to those brave and principled officials who stood up for decency, truth, and the rule of law that are the very foundations of our democracy.

In a powerful message of healing delivered on Wednesday night, Valerie Kaur, the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, reminded us of what we can learn from midwives about the path to new life. First, we must breathe, and then we must push.

Something new and good can be born out of the tragic events in Washington this week. It will require effort, courage, determination and consistent action grounded in love and kindness, and generosity of spirit. We will have to push to restore the unity and harmony of our nation, and to extend its blessings of opportunity and dignity to all its citizens, especially to those who have been unjustly demonized and oppressed. But first, we must breathe. We must inhale the healing breath of life and exhale anxiety, fear, and hate. We must allow our cleansing breath to clear the air and restore vitality to our being.

Emma Lazarus spoke of America as a land of liberty that opens its arms to all who yearn to breathe free. So let us breathe. Let us breathe freely and expansively, and then let us push. Let us push for the freedom of all the inhabitants of this land to breathe free.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck