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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

The Balance between Righteousness and Self-Righteousness

I have long been fascinated by the story of the biblical midwives Shifrah and Pu’ah, since my college rabbi at Brandeis University, Al Axelrad, announced an annual Shifrah and Pu’ah Award. Each year, on the Shabbat of Parashat Shemot, Rabbi Al announced the contemporary recipient of the award: someone who had acted with moral courage despite potential danger to his or her life or reputation. Some of the honorees were international human rights heroes. Others were ordinary people who had acted with courage, despite risks to their personal safety and comfort.

In the first chapter of Exodus, a new Egyptian king arose who oppressed the Israelites, regarding them as a threatening “other.” Pharaoh ordered the “Hebrew midwives”: “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live. But the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the baby boys live” (Exodus 1:16-17).

Who were these midwives, and what do they have to teach us today about moral courage?

The term “Hebrew midwives,” used to describe them, is ambiguous. Some commentators, following the Talmud in Sotah 11b, believe that the midwives were Israelite women. I think that the context confirms the view of other commentators who believe that these were Egyptian midwives who helped Israelite women give birth. They were Pharaoh’s own subjects, whom he expected to obey his command without question. According to this explanation, these Egyptian women reached across national and religious divides, feeling human and moral solidarity with their sisters, the Israelite women, in a bond stronger than their allegiance to their own king. In this sense, they were very much like Pharaoh’s own daughter, who defied her father’s order and rescued the baby Moses from the Nile out of basic human compassion.

Thus in a number of ways, Shifrah and Pu’ah serve as exemplars of what the Mussar masters call “ometz lev,” a fascinating phrase literally meaning “heart strength.” How are we to understand this quality?

One classic text appears in Pirkei Avot: “Yehudah ben Teimah says: ‘Be strong like the leopard, light like the eagle, swift like the deer, and mighty like the lion to do the will of God who is in Heaven.’”

Rabbi Yehudah ben Teimah employs images for boldness, eagerness and power from the animal world. But as human beings, we are urged to reach for these qualities only in the service of God’s will, only when we act for the greater good. Later in the passage, Yehudah ben Teimah warns that moral courage is a complex and sometimes dangerous quality, which can easily drift into self-righteousness.

In our own lives, when we sense power and urgency arising in our hearts, how are we to know whether we are acting “for God’s will” like the biblical Shifrah and Pu’ah, or whether we are motivated by desire for fame, admiration or personal gratification? Is the surge of strength welling up in us truly righteous anger, for the sake of heaven or the world’s needs, or is it coming from the powerful force of our own ego desires? How do we discern when to trust the rush of activist energy and when to pause and interrogate it?

The term ometz lev contains the key to such balance. Ometz lev is a quality of strength, power, willingness to speak truth to power and to defy communal expectations when the well-being of others is at stake. But ometz lev is also a quality of the heart: strength tempered by love, gentleness and desire for the well-being of all.

We can easily err by leaning toward one extreme or the other. On the one hand, timidity in the face of moral challenge means that we miss opportunities to partner with God in the work of perfecting the world. To be controlled by fear of disapproval is to enable those who pursue injustice. Becoming lost in fearfulness, uncertainty or confusion makes us complicit in the evils perpetrated all around us.

On the other hand, the call for justice may generate a rush of angry energy inside us, disconnected from the people on whose behalf we wish to act. When we are driven by impulsive boldness unsoftened by the energies of the heart, we may really be crusading for our own glory rather than for the greater good. Such boldness is propelled by our own needs, not born of devotion to God’s desires for the world.

Discerning the path of ometz lev, courage born of love and devotion, is a delicate dance for us, especially in times when moral challenges surround us. In the coming year, may we be guided to embrace moral courage as we partner to create a more just and loving world.

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