With gratitude to my friend Rabbi Bethie Miller for her teaching and beautifully crafted renderings of Va'era which I cite here.
I first became aware of New Zealand's Prime Minister during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Famously, New Zealand was able to maintain a zero Covid policy for months, while
the rest of the world seemed to fall deeper and deeper into the hole, and it was during that time that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gained attention on the worldwide stage. You may remember that the beginning of Covid overlapped with some of the darkest days of the previous administration's presidency, and so to imagine a country that was able to maintain life during Covid, and to see that it was headed up by a woman was about as extraordinary as it could get. Like many of my contemporaries, I admired her— I loved seeing the pictures of her with her infant daughter curled up against her in parliamentary sessions, having been only the second world leader ever to give birth while in office. And so it came as an unwelcome and yet, not so surprising surprise to learn this week that Prime Minister Ardern was announcing the end of her tenure. At a news conference in Wellington, NZ this past week she said “I have given my absolute all, I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”
It didn't take long before the proverbial "can women really have it all?" think pieces in response to her announcement started popping up. The remarkable tenure of this head of state was easily reduced to that old familiar headline: a reminder, or maybe a warning, that ultimately, there’s a version of the story where women simply cannot have it all.
And tonight, in the context of Shabbat, in the context of our Torah— which offers us a lens through which we might see our own story, I can’t help but think about the story of Jacinda Ardern’s rise to prominence and leadership, and now— her exit from that place of power and influence.
Last week, in the beginning of the book of Exodus, we encounter a story rife with powerful women. From the midwives to Moses’ mother, sister and wife to Pharaoh’s own daughter, these bold, brave women don’t hesitate. They speak up and insert themselves, because life is on the line. They literally and figuratively birth the exodus story. It’s beautiful and powerful.
These women are anything but incidental: they defy powerful men, they save lives, and they plant seeds of liberation into our story. From Shifra and Puah, the midwives, to Yocheved, Moses’ mother, to his sister Miriam, to the daughter of Pharaoh herself: the beginning of our story is framed by the action and influence of women.
And then, this week- we return to Torah only to see that they have disappeared. Parashat Va’eira, meaning, “and he appeared” highlights the story of God’s appearance to Moses, while simultaneously ignoring the disappearance of these women. There’s no mention of them at all in this week’s Torah portion, as God and Moses begin to lay the groundwork for a divine partnership to liberate the Israelites.
It’s almost as though these women have done their work, and now, we are done with them.
But when Torah is quiet, it’s up to us to press our ears up against the scroll and to listen for the whispers—- to try to hear what that quiet is telling us.
As my friend and teacher Rabbi Bethie Miller reminds me, many of the power players in the book of Exodus are boundary crossers.
Think about Pharaoh’s daughter who brings a Hebrew baby into her home and raises him as a prince. Or the midwives who may have been Egyptians themselves but side with the oppressed. They look Pharaoh in the eye and
explain that they can’t follow his decree. Or our very own Moses who leaves the palace to lead the young Israelite nation to liberation.
As Jews, from the very beginning and continuing today, we are boundary
crossers. We live in different worlds. Sometimes as insiders, sometimes as
outsiders. It’s a blessing and a curse. Women in the Jewish community have come so far, rising to positions of leadership across the denominational spectrum. And yet, like that 75 cents on the dollar, there are still so many ways in which we’re still not all the way there. Our work is to figure out how to most effectively raise our voices and be heard.
In this light, I am moved to think about the story of Jacinda Ardern in a different way: to see her decision as a powerful choice in itself. For every headline that took the cheap shot with “Can women have it all?”, there were as many more pieces noting that Ardern’s decision seems to resonate with many women in positions of power or leadership. In rejecting the pursuit of power for the sake of power, Ardern pulled the ultimate female power move so many of women dream of. Maybe her resignation is a boundary crossing: a depiction of a powerful and globally recognized woman departing from the expected path.
And here’s where listening carefully to the quieter places in Torah and Jewish teaching comes to life for me: because what do we learn from Torah, broadly defined, if not that there is a season for everything, and a time for every purpose under heaven? Where else do we find the idea that we can return to Torah over and over, turning it again and again, finding new gems of wisdom in it.
Perhaps rather than seeing this moment as a disappearance, we should see it as a moment of metamorphosis. A moment for redefining how we esteem leadership— not as a straight line, but perhaps as episodes: moments when we have enough in the tank to do the job justice, and times when we step away to recharge, with no due date or promise of return.
Midrash, that ancient form of storytelling that allows us to imagine the spaces in between the story is a way that our tradition has literally invented new ways to understand ourselves and the story of our people.
So in the spirit of midrash, I’d like to reimagine what happened to the strong women of Exodus who this week, seem to have at least temporarily disappeared.
Imagine with me for a moment that you are Shifra and Puah: midwives, accustomed to long hours of labor, working through the night, accompanying women through a primal and ancient ritual of birth. Then the king issues this decree— and you, with honor and respect for the miracle of human life in your heart, you know that you cannot do it. You cannot kill those baby boys.
Or, step into the shoes of Yocheved, Moses’ mother for a moment. For nine months, your body and your heart have made space for this child— and now, you know the only way to preserve his life is to send him away.
Or, maybe– you want to imagine you are Bat Pharaoh: the daughter of the most powerful man in all of Egypt. And looking at this baby in the basket, you know in your heart that you will care for him and raise him as your own— ignoring all of the risks that come with it.
The human heart, can take only so much.
If I were Shifra, Puah, Yocheved or Bat Pharoah: I might need to take a break. To step away. To heal. To recover. To rest.
It’s not so difficult to imagine— or to hear the echoes in Prime Minister Ardern’s words when she concluded her resignation speech saying ““I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”
We can’t predict what the future will hold for Prime Minister Ardern— but we do have the benefit of knowing how the story that Torah offers us about who we are unfolds. We know that the women do not disappear forever— and that in time, like a relay race, the baton of remarkable moral leadership will pass from Shifra, Puah, Yocheved and Bat Pharaoh to Miriam, and to the women who sustain the Israelites in their quest for freedom.
In their honor, in honor of women like Jacinda Arden, I offer this final blessing:
Baruch Atah Adonai, oseh ha’ivrim.
Blessed are you Adonai, maker of the boundary crossers, who show us another way.