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One Child at a Time: Transition from Genesis to Exodus

January 1, 2018 | by Dr. Erica Brown

It takes a village, indeed.

In Jewish life, it’s a wonderful blessing when a couple has a baby by choice. It’s much harder when a birth is not desired or intentional, when financial pressures are mounting or when both members of a couple are not in sync about the decision. A woman who has a baby on her own may struggle. There may be, God forbid, problems with the pregnancy or birth. The miracle of birth never sours, but the circumstances can become extremely challenging and daunting.

Judaism’s emphasis on fertility can be painful for those for whom this blessing is stalled or creates emotional havoc. It’s hard to miss the stress our sacred texts place on having babies. As we transition between the book of Genesis and Exodus, we can’t help but notice the new emphasis on fertility. In one of the most telling signs that life for our ancient people has changed, the very same language of Genesis 1, that Adam and Eve should be fruitful and multiply, is repeated in Exodus with two new verb add-ons. “But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:5).

The repeated verbs from Genesis 1 are a blessing. But the two new verbs – that they are increasing almost unnaturally and experiencing reptile-like growth (va-yatzmu and va-yishratzu) – are largely pejorative. In our view, the fact that we finally reached our growth potential after so many struggles with almost every one of our Genesis mothers is a source of immense collective relief and happiness, even in a time of slavery. But in the eyes of the Egyptians, our population spurt was a source of anxiety, leading Pharaoh to one conclusion: “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us” (Exodus 1:9). I don’t know of a time in our long, long history when a leader of a vast empire was concerned that the Jewish people under his reign were so numerous that they posed a military threat.

This surge was not only something Pharaoh noticed. The famous midwives of the story who rejected Pharaoh’s terrible demands also observed something unusual: “The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth” (Exodus 1:19). A number of commentators suggest that the women birthed more like animals in the wild than the Egyptian women to whom they tended. And it seems that the more the Israelites suffered, the more prolific they became.

Any threat made to our lives makes us value life more rather than less.

Perhaps something else is going on that Pharaoh did not understand and that we understood implicitly and intuitively. Any threat made to our lives makes us value life more rather than less. We have repeated this pattern in our history again and again. We don’t grow to threaten our host countries. We grow because we value every child, every life, every new arrival in the world. It enables us to bring the richness of Jewish wisdom to the world, but most of all, it allows us to enjoy this wisdom within each and every family.

At the same time, this week’s Torah reading allows us to meditate on the difficulties women experience during pregnancy when things are not working out the way they should or the way any individual woman wants for a variety of emotional, psychological, religious or financial reasons. There are organizations out there that recognize these difficulties and provide incredible support to women who are in Genesis but would rather be in Exodus, so to speak. In Shifra’s Arms is one of them. Their mission is to help women navigate unplanned or difficult pregnancies so they don’t have to take the journey alone, no matter their background. And in the event of an abortion or a miscarriage, they provide kindness, compassion and respect without judgment.

No one can be Jewish alone. One of the great lessons of the early chapters of Exodus is that we moved from a small tribal family to a numberless people, as told to Abraham, precisely so that no one of us would have to go through life alone. We are the dust and the stars. But sometimes in the process of helping our people actualize that dream, we may feel closer to the dust rather than the stars. That’s when we need support the most.

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