Parashat Bo: amid the drama and death in Egypt God gives a glimmer of hope for feminism

When Moses wanted to warn of a plague that would affect every single family from the most powerful in the land to the most vulnerable and powerless, he chooses a telling analogy – he tells Pharaoh “and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even to the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 11:5)

What do we learn from this? We learn that the normative belief of Moses and of Pharaoh is that the lowest of the low in Egyptian society was the shifcha – the female servant – in particular the one whose job was the physical labour of grinding the corn on the millstones.

In human society this woman who worked behind the millstones, completely unseen, and the product of whose work was the most critical and basic foodstuff – she was at the very bottom of the pile, only above the animal herds.

Midrash notices her – in Pesikta Rabbati (ch 17) we have the question why she should also become a victim of the tenth plague, losing her firstborn child like the rest of non-Israelite society, and unsurprisingly it enters the realm of apologetics, and an explanation supporting this position is devised :“because the children of the slave women were also enslaving the Israelites, and they were happy about their misfortune”

Even in the world of slaves it seems, there is no compassion for fellow sufferers, the hierarchy and the need to enslave others, is assumed.

She seems to me to be a paradigm for women’s work through the ages. She is barely noticed, hidden behind the millstones, her gender and her status as servant both contributing to her concealment. She is the definition of what society has constructed as “worthless”, even while she is doing work that is not only of real value but that is utterly necessary for the society to continue – grinding the flour for the bread is the work on which all other factors build. Women’s work has always been valued as less-than. Be it home making or child rearing, tending to the sick and to the elderly, in service to others or even if it is innovative and creative, society values it less, sees it as inferior. And sadly girls absorb this world view early –gender stereotypes seem to be functioning in children as young as six years old[i]

Yet the biblical text views the shifcha – the bondmaid – in Hebrew society differently – they are not so hidden from view. It seems that the shifcha is the name of the maid given directly to the women by their menfolk in order to help them in their lives.  Hagar is introduced as a shifcha belonging to Sarah (Gen 16:1) though she is called an amah when she has Abraham’s child.  Zilpah and Bilhah are similarly introduced as Shifchot when given by their father to Leah and Rachel on their marriages to Jacob. The shifcha helps her mistress fulfil her work – in these cases she goes so far as to provide children with the husband of her mistress, functioning as a surrogate. It is a status both lowly and without personal identity or autonomy and yet at the same time the shifcha is in the heart of the family, bearing children who are recognised and who will inherit. Her function is to support and build the status of her mistress and in so doing she will herself grow in status.

In the Ten Commandments the status of the servants (admittedly av’decha v’amat’cha) means they also do no work on Shabbat.  Their power may be low and their vulnerability great, but God notices them and cares for them.

And this may explain the disappearance from the text of these women described by Moses as the very lowest of Egyptian society.  For in the very next chapter when the plague he is warning about comes to pass we read “And it came to pass at midnight, that the Eternal smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Exodus 12:29)

The shifcha who worked behind the mill has been replaced here by the captive in the dungeon. And we have to ask why. Is it that Moses got it wrong, that the shifcha was not quite at the bottom of the pile? Is it that the two groups, captives and maidservants, are essentially synonyms?

I don’t think Moses got it wrong, and I don’t think that the two groups fully equate – the imprisoned captive or the hard working servant woman. I have the feeling that God noticed when Moses issued his threat, God saw that these women who were unsung and uncared for but who worked for the society – in their case to feed them –did not deserve this total lack of respect that Pharaoh and Moses assumed. God didn’t buy into the idea that “women’s work” – the kind of work that creates and cooks the food, that ensures there is clean clothing and that the home is functioning and hygienic; the kind of work like cleaning offices when everyone else has gone home or visiting the sick or elderly and helping with their basic needs – God sees the value even when sometimes society doesn’t.

When Moses and Pharaoh demonstrate that they do not see the women because the society in which they lived do not see the women, God has a little extra lesson to give. The story is dramatic, the tenth plague particularly cruel and unfair leading us to much soul searching about what kind of a God could behave like this – but the glimmer of fairness and valuing of someone shows through as God subtly shifts from the warning to the action. And it makes me see a God working in a patriarchal context but refusing to be bound by it.

[i] Bian, L., Leslie, S. J., & Cimpian, A. (2017). Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests. Science, 355(6323), 389–391.

Parashat Bo -the moon waxes and wanes and we learn to count time

The first mitzvah given to the people of Israel occurs in this sidra just before the cataclysmic tenth plague, and the people are finally freed from slavery. Moses is instructed to tell the people “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (12:2) from which the mitzvah of Kiddush haChodesh, the determination of the New Moon, is derived.

Of all the possible choices to be the very first commandment to the new people being formed, the declaration of the new month seems at first glance to be a surprising one. And coming as it does just before the final act that leads to their redemption, the context makes it all the more critical. So why is the very first shaper of the people Israel the requirement to notice the phases of the moon and to declare the new month?

There are, of course, any number of commentaries on this mitzvah. That as the moon does not have light of its own, but reflects the glory of the sunshine, so do Israel reflect the glory of God. That in counting the phases of the moon the people return to the awareness of the God of creation, and as the moon appears to travel with the traveller, so God too travels with us and appears wherever we are. That the moon is sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, like the God we constantly seek. That the phases of the moon, which waxes and wanes, remind us that ‘this too will pass’, that our own fortunes come and go, but nothing is forever. That by watching the phases of the moon in order to declare the new month, we are looking up and away from our own situations. That by declaring the new month we are moving away from the Egyptian system whereby the movement of the heavenly bodies is predicated on the actions and the kingship of the Pharaoh. That declaring the new month will be a human initiative, not a divine one….

They are all good glosses as to why this mitzvah is the first given to the people, and timed just before they leave Egypt for an uncertain future, but I think there is another more powerful reason for why this is the first mitzvah for the people to learn to do.

Structuring our time is one of the most powerful ways we take control of our lives. For the Israelites leaving slavery, the idea of structuring their own time must have been both difficult to imagine and frightening to think about actually doing. The bottom line of slavery is that one is not in control of one’s own time, and the parallel bottom line of freedom is that one has to learn to use time in the best way. Having recently changed my work practise after 28 years of being a community rabbi always chasing my tail and trying to catch up with the work, with never enough time to do everything I wanted to do, I find that managing my own time is even harder when there isn’t the pattern imposed externally by ‘work’. So I may continue to write ‘to – do’ lists and doggedly work my way through them but somehow I am still chasing my tail, still trying to catch up on the day’s expected tasks, still frustrated at the amount of things to do in the time available.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (known as Parkinson ’s Law) and this is certainly borne out by experience – both as an individual and as a society. Everyone who has worked in a pressured organisation is aware of the issue of ‘presenteeism’ – the need to look efficient to others by working many more hours than one is contracted to do. Indeed I remember being told by a congregant who worked for one of the big consultancy firms that while normally when buying a suit one would buy one jacket and two pairs of trousers (which show signs of wear more quickly), in his world it was normal to buy one pair of trousers and two jackets, one to be left on the desk chair so that it would look like you were still in the building and working.

Structuring time so as to work with efficiency and still have the opportunity to have a life outside it is one of the hardest things to do – the pressures imposed upon us by our employers or clients or congregants alongside our own needs to look busy and important and necessary mean that we are generally very bad at this skill. And when one works at home or for oneself, or when we are connected through various devices to the rest of the world almost continually, it is even harder to disconnect, to put the boundaries in place and then to keep them.

Looked at in this light, it is very clear that the one thing the people of Israel needed to become aware of is the rhythmic passing of time and that it is we who count and notice and determine the time, not some external power or internal need. Control of time is the paradigm of real freedom and it is hard to do well. But the moon, the gentle moon with its renewal and growth, with its regular phases and reminders during dark times that light will come again, and most of all with its nightly appearance that gives us hope, that helps us to keep count of the passing of time, that means we look up an out of ourselves when we might be tempted only to keep our eyes focussed on the task to be completed – the moon is the most wonderful object to follow and to see. And add to that the requirement upon us to pay attention to its monthly cycle, to requirement to make of each new moon a moment to renew ourselves and refresh ourselves, to sanctify the time we are living in – this is so obviously the most powerful commandment to give to a people embarking on freedom who will find the structuring and controlling of their time the most difficult thing to do, and possibly even a terrible burden. As we see the time pass in this most powerful and beautiful changing image in the sky each night, we can both be aware of what is not done and be refreshed and renewed to work differently in the coming days, both mark the passage of time and join its flow. The word ‘Bo’ is the command to both ‘come’ and to ‘go’. The moon is its visual representation as it comes and goes each month. And we too are able to leave behind and travel towards as we learn to use our time to best advantage.

Parashat Bo

The sidra opens with a challenge – the word we use to name this narrative – Bo. God is saying to Moses “Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your son’s son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

In Hebrew there are two different verbs – la’lechet which means ‘to go’ and which was the imperative used when God first met Abraham – Lech Lecha! And la’vo meaning ‘to come’ which is the verb used here to Moses. Come to Pharaoh!

But at the end of the sidra last week, Moses was outside the city – so from the usage of this verb we can only understand that while Moses was outside and away from Pharaoh, God was within, and close to Pharaoh.

The thirteenth century French commentator, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, noted this strange usage, and suggested that God was saying that when Moses went to Pharaoh, God would be there with him – in effect he would not be alone as he faced the increasingly paranoid and terrifying king.  This is a lovely reassurance to Moses, but it begs the question – why at this point does Moses need the reassurance? Is he in doubt that God can do what is promised? Does he fear that he will be led into a trap from which there is no escape?

Moses knows from later in the same verse, that God has hardened the heart of Pharaoh yet again. Maybe he was holding on to the hope that Pharaoh would finally yield to the wishes of his advisors, that he would understand that he was in a battle he could not win. But God has put paid to that hope – Pharaoh would, for certain, rebuff him. And this too would be part of God’s plan.

How difficult must it have been for Moses to go through with this. How much must he have wanted God to be actively present alongside him. And then the plagues themselves when they came were all of them about darkness, isolation and terror. As we feel today feel conflicted about God strengthening Pharaoh’s resolve to take the battle between them to the ultimate conclusion, how much more so must Moses have felt, a frightened human being shuttling between the two of them?

An ancient battle is being played out – between Good and Evil, between light and dark. What is different in this rendition of the mythology is that human beings are part of the thread of the narrative, that we must witness and understand what it is we see, we must go on to remember and to tell what we saw and understood.

Those first two verses set the scene ““Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn in order to demonstrate my miraculous signs among them. And so you may tell in the ears of your child, and of your children’s children, what I have done to Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Eternal.’”

The final element of the battle is to happen now. And all must know for all time from the process of this battle that God is the one and only and Eternal God.

The  parashah goes on to recount the events leading up to the final night, when the Israelites prepared for their departure from Egypt, and the instructions given to ensure that this core event in our history will be recorded forever in the collective memory of the Jewish people.

The events leading up to and surrounding the exodus from Egypt are embedded in our narrative in so many ways – Kiddush at Shabbat, the Amidah, the Seder, the Hallel. These are signs and signals for us to respond to, we  must consciously understand what we are doing, and tell and retell the narrative to ourselves and others in every generation. All of this so that we may never forget nor misunderstand that God is God.

There are two big themes in Judaism – there is the universalistic one of the Creation of the World and the Creator of all Things who is God of all people;  And there is the particularistic one of the Exodus from Egypt and the particular relationship we Jews have with God. All of our tradition and theology is balanced upon these two major events, the universal and the particular, the creation and the exodus, the whole and the part, the community and the individual.  We create actions and rituals, stories and prayers, all in order to remember that the Eternal is our God, and everything flows from that remembering. But in the smaller and particularistic scale our activity also reminds us that each of us has a consciousness and lives a life of moment and value, and we should not take any part of that for granted.  Each of us makes a contribution, each of us is a witness and our stories weave into the narrative to strengthen and form it.

If we choose not to be part of the story, then everything is weakened because of that choice. We are in it together, a people, a community, who share our narrative and understanding.  We may fear, we may doubt, we may have good reason for both the doubt and the fear. But like Moses, when we take our part in the narrative we should remember the choice of verb used by God – “come – be with Me, I will be with you, you are not alone in this however terrifying it looks”, rather than the verb used in the imperative to Abraham – Go for yourself. 

 In the two imperatives that God uses to force movement, we have moved from the individual to the communal journey. We are no longer alone. However difficult we might find God to be, we have each other and we have the reassurance of our history that however dark it seems to be, the dawn will come.