ARE YOU A NURTURER?
Just over a week ago I was having lunch in a bustling restaurant in Byron Bay. While waiting for the food I was scanning a bookshelf with my four month old Charlie slung on my hip. A young woman, probably about eighteen, turned around from her table and asked me timidly “Do you mind if I look at your baby?” Her father stood up smiling “She’s studying to be a midwife” he declared proudly.
I was so touched by this moment. Knowing first handedly the deeply beautiful and essential influence doulas and midwives can have on your birth experience, I was grateful for the service this young girl had committed to. Beyond that, I was so impressed by her loving, supportive father, who obviously understood the merit of her humble undertaking.
Midwives and obstetricians facilitate the miraculous; In their daily work they come so close to the divine; they see women reach into the bony depths of pain and they direct them to tap into the lioness of strength within, cheerleeding them upwards. They help to safely bring babies into this world. These people have a stamina, a dedication and a tenderness that is quite awesome.
This week we open the second book of the Torah with Parshat Shemot. We are about to dive into the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. It is the defining narrative of greater Jewish History - a tale we reference on a daily basis in multiple prayers. When it is recounted briefly, it is dominated by a cast of male characters - Moses, Pharaoh, Aaron. But it is really impossible to garner the essence of this story without including some powerful women - women without whom our fate could have certainly been different.
It begins with Yocheved, Moses’s mother. She is the youngest daughter of Levi, and said to be the the seventieth soul of Jacob’s descent. She was conceived in the land of Canaan, but birthed just as Jacob’s family entered Egypt where they moved to escape the famine. Yocheved bridged two worlds - she was inextricably connected to the land in which divine oneness existed, and yet she also experienced exile. Because she held both these realms in her being, she became the mother of the man who would also bridge worlds and lead the Jewish people to freedom.
In this parsha we are also introduced to the midwives Shifrah and Puah. When Pharaoh learns from his sorcerers that the saviour of the Jewish people will soon arrive, he makes these two women responsible for killing every Jewish boy that is born. The most common understanding is that Shifra and Puah are in fact Yocheved and her daughter Miriam (Moses & Aaron’s elder sister). The women heroically defy Pharaoh’s instruction, secretly birthing and protecting a generation of babies, risking their own lives in the process. When Yocheved’s husband Amram suggests they separate to avoid bringing more children into the world who will be subject to the same decree, it is Yocheved who draws upon intense faith that the babies will be saved, and insists they remain together.
Soon after, the young, intuitive Miriam receives prophecy that her baby brother Moses will be the one to deliver the Hebrew people from their bondage. Yocheved prepares a basket, and with all the inexplicable pain, fear, hope and love a mother could have in that moment, she places her precious son into the nile, praying for his survival.
Moses is rescued from the nile by Bitya, Pharoahs daughter. The Egyptian princess takes him in, knowing that he is one of the Jewish children her father has condemned to death. She names him Moses, by which we know him to this day. Understanding the infant needs to be fed, Bitya agrees for a Hebrew milknurse to feed him. Miriam arranges for Yocheved to nourish her own son. The Talmud tells us that through this interaction, Moses learns the origins of his people and the identity of his birth.
Years later, conflicted and straddling the worlds of royalty and captivity, Moses kills an Egyptian guard in defense of a Jewish slave. Moses flees the kingdom, the people of his birth and the adopted household of his childhood. He meets a Midianite family in the desert and marries Tziporah, the daughter of their leader, who bears his children and ensures Moses’s succession.
Finally Moses is called upon by G-d to return to where he came from, and deliver the descendants of Jacob out from Egypt.
Moses, our humble and greatest leader, is the most iconic figure in Jewish History. We revere him and love him to this day, for his devotion, his character, his tenacity and his role as the shepherd who took us from our slavery and brought us to freedom; The man who was our conduit to the divine and the man through whom we received the utterance of the Holy Torah. There is no one in our heritage who has had such profound impact since our beloved Moses.
But it is evident from this Parsha, that there would be no Moses were it not for Yocheved, Miriam and Bitya. These are the women who risked everything for just one small child - and that child would become one of the most influential men in history.
I am reminded of the most moving email I received some time ago, from spiritual teacher and thought leader Rha Goddess, who had just lost her father. In the midst of her grieving she wrote,
“There is so much in this world that would not exist if it had not been for ordinary people who have chosen to be extraordinary champions for others. These are the faces you don't see. They are the names you don't know. They are the "shout outs" in acceptance speeches, the humble smiles worn on the faceless among the crowd.
But their legacies endure and live on, through everything they've touched, and all that they've nurtured and cultivated. Their leadership is bigger than any fad or wave or sense of popularity.”
We each have nurturers of all kinds in our lives. Some we know only briefly, others remain with us for a lifetime. The swimming teacher who guides us as a toddler to stay afloat; the college professor who makes a suggestion and inspires a lifetime passion; the friends who believe in us; the family members who support us relentlessly. The nurturers are the firm, guiding hands of the doctor or midwife, who are our first human contact outside of the womb.
To me, this Parsha is an homage to the extraordinary and humble women who shaped and propelled Moses’s journey from the shadows; the women who courageously and selflessly saved a generation and in doing so assisted in the continuation of the Jewish people to this very day. It is a reminder for all of us to recall the cheerleaders and nurturers we have been blessed with. The ones who have made sacrifices for us, devoted themselves to us, believed in us.
It is a calling for us to become those fearless and unwavering supporters for others.
For the nurturers behind the scenes, starting with the mothers who birth us and the midwives who deliver us. And for the nurturers we will become...
(Dedicated to my parents)