Proper 16A/Ordinary 21A/Pentecost +10
August 21, 2011
“We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped” – Psalm 124:7
In human history, we have seen the machinery of power escape control from time to time, rolling over all those in its path like a juggernaut. During those times, the plight of the children is especially precarious, because children represent hope for the future – and those who wish to wipe out both hope and the future for any particular group will take aim at its children.
In the Torah portion for this week, we see such a precarious time for the descendants of Jacob/Israel living in Egypt. Pharaoh has seen the rise of the Israelites from a small band of foreigners living in the land to a population large enough to outnumber the Egyptians. When majority populations face major shifts like this one, xenophobia often rears its ugly head. The Egyptians tried to oppress the Israelites through forced labor, but “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites” (Exod 1:12).
Pharoah hit upon a Final Solution. He commanded the midwives of the Hebrews (named Shiphrah and Puah) to kill all the male infants that they delivered. Interestingly enough, the midwives chose to use their position within the community to subvert Pharaoh’s death-dealing plans: “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live” (vv.17). It is often in the cracks of history that women like the virtuous midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, manage to use what little power they have to do the right thing.
In another precarious point in history, the descendants of Israel were oppressed again – this time with modern machinery and military power. In 1940, when the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw was erected by the occupying Germans to isolate 450,000 Jews, a young Polish Catholic woman named Irena Sendlerowa (Sendler) could not stand idly by. She had already been giving food and shelter to various Jewish families since the invasion began, but she realized that the community – particularly its children – were in grave danger.
Irena and 10 social worker colleagues (all but one of them women) began to work together systematically, under cover of the Warsaw Contagious Disease Department, to enter the ghetto, smuggle in food and supplies, and smuggle out children. Irene eventually became head of the Children’s Division of Zegota – the Polish underground resistance organization. Within two years, she brought 2,500 Jewish children to safety, keeping careful records of their families of origin in buried glass jars, in hopes they could be reunited with their families after the war’s end.
Pharaoh eventually caught up with the midwives of the Hebrews and brought them in for questioning. Having their wits about them, they made up a plausible story, playing to Pharaoh’s bigotry: “ … the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (vv.19). We assume that Pharaoh released them unharmed, because the text states “God dealt well with the midwives …” (vv.20).
Irena was not quite as fortunate as the midwives, although she benefitted from her own and her comrades’ quick wits. In 1943, Irena was arrested by the Germans and sent to the Piawiak prison, where she was incessantly questioned and tortured. She endured fractures to her legs and feet. But she nonetheless stood by the story agreed upon by her comrades
in Zegota and would not give up any of their names. Even though she was sentenced to death, God dealt well with this midwife of freedom – members of Zegota bribed the executioner into releasing her on the day she was to be put to death, and she was rescued and taken into hiding.
After the war ended and the Communists took over Poland, Irena’s story was suppressed by the government because, ironically, they considered her and the Zegota organization to be “subversive.” She was named one of the Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Committee in 1967, but the rest of the world never heard about it. It was not until 1999, when four schoolgirls in Kansas began researching Irena Sendlerowa for a National History Day project – and ultimately visited her personally in 2001 – that Irena’s story became known to the world. There are now over 80,000 websites mentioning her.
The story of the virtuous Hebrew midwives ends with “And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families” (vv.21). The Hebrew for “gave them families” literally means “gave them
houses”. Irena Sendler, midwife of freedom, passed away in Warsaw on May 12, 2008 at 98 years old. Thanks to the work of the four Kansas schoolgirls, enough funds had been raised for Irena to provide her with quality round-the-clock medical care in a nursing home. She had a warm roof over her head, and had made a home in the minds and memories of thousands of people across the world. May God deal generously with all midwives of freedom, and open our eyes to their labors.