This week the Jewish People read in the Torah about the enslavement of our ancestors.
The daily fare of the Jewish slaves in their Egyptian exile was cruel. What began as forced labor steadily degenerated into acts of unspeakable brutality and horror, leading to Pharaoh’s decree to murder all newborn male infants.
While the physical labor was backbreaking, the moral toll was similarly bitter. The family unit was shattered, wives separated from husbands, who were forced to remain at their work sites in faraway fields. The people were demoralized and depressed, stripped of any of their former dignity or self-respect. Under the daily terror of the slaver’s whip, it appeared that any good future was hopeless.
One group of slaves, however, did not give in – this group continued to hope. They preserved their human dignity; they continued to dream of a better life.
This group of slaves was the Jewish women.
“In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.” So says the ancient Jewish text, the Talmud.
The Talmud explains: After an exhausting day of excruciating labor, the women would polish their mirrors and use them to beautify themselves for their husbands.
At night, the women would sneak out to the men’s camps, bringing hot, nourishing food. They would heat water in the fields and bathe their husbands’ wounds.
The women spoke soft, soothing words. “Do not lose hope. We will not be slaves to these degenerates all our lives.”
Many women conceived during these visits, subsequently giving birth to the children who would ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.
How appropriate that we learn of these women in connection with this week’s Torah portion. As you know many thousands of women will be marching in Washington and elsewhere – including downtown Chicago – on this Shabbat. The reasons for the marching are many. The anger is real. But so is the hope that says we cannot give up on our country’s ability to find the right tone of civic discourse, to reach out to those who have been unlucky in life, to those whose fight each day is filled with despair and disillusionment.
Politics aside, the reality in our country these days cannot be ignored. There is much anger, argument, refusal to listen, and lack of respect. There is genuine inequality and needless suffering. But there is also hope that we can reorient our society based on mutual respect and that indescribable but genuine American spirit.
And so I ask that, whatever our mood or politics this weekend, we remember the ancient courage of Israelite women, who would not settle for a life of despair. Such courageous women saved us before and they can do so once again.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
PS Please join us for worship this Friday night, January 20, where the sermon will not be about the Inauguration.