The story of Passover in the book of Exodus is all about birth. In the first chapter, the fecundity of the Israelite women is so powerful that no matter what Pharaoh does to try to reduce the Israelite population, it continues to grow. The midwives, ordered to help in killing the firstborn baby boys, ensure their births instead. The second chapter of Exodus describes the way that baby Moses is kept alive despite all odds.
And then there is the moment of the crossing of the Red Sea, which is read on the 7th day of Passover. Many commentators have pointed out that the narrow crossing, surrounded by water on both sides, can be seen as a metaphor for the birth canal.
The image of liberation as birth is recapitulated in the Talmud (Sotah 11b) which contends that the birth of Israelite babies was so important to God that God personally acted as a midwife when the Israelite slaves were giving birth. When the people reach the shores of the Red Sea and God splits the sea to enable them to escape the chariots of Pharaoh’s army, the women and children immediately recognize who is responsible for the miracle. They exclaim, “This is my God!” because they recognize God from God’s role in the moment of birth.
In many contexts, the question is being asked these days — what has sustained you during the past pandemic year? As the months of isolation have dragged on, changing my life and the lives of the people I love in many unforeseen and not always welcome ways, I have turned to the image of God as a midwife for spiritual sustenance along the journey to what I hope will ultimately be liberation. Let me explain.
I have given birth twice and here is what I know about the experience: it is hard work and it hurts. A lot. It was perhaps the hardest, most painful work of my life. Labor is called labor for a reason. From what I have read and heard about midwives, they have a lot of tricks up their sleeves to help out. They can guide the mother to physical positions that can assist with delivery. They can coach the mother with breathing techniques or visualization and soothe her with a massage. But here’s the thing. The one thing a midwife cannot do is take away the reality that labor is hard, painful work. They can, however, try to keep the mother’s mind and heart connected to the fact that the hard, painful work will, God willing, lead to a new and wonderful outcome.
This past year has been laboriously difficult in so many ways. Although my family has been spared the most excruciating outcome of the pandemic and I am acutely aware of the ways we have been cushioned by our socioeconomic status, there has still been plenty of pain for me and my loved ones. As the months became a year and my plucky, can-do spirit of finding the silver linings and counting my blessings has waned, I have increasingly turned to the image of God as midwife to get me through. In the Exodus narrative, even God could not take away the pain of the years of servitude. That labor, for mysterious reasons, was a certainty. God could become a midwife to assist in the birth of a new reality for the people, but in the end, it was on them to push their way out of the old reality, even as they felt its pain. It was the people who had to take the steps that would lead to liberation and redemption with their own feet.
And so too with this mysterious servitude of the pandemic year. We can find midwives to skillfully assist with the labor pangs — thankfully, as the weather gets better, my outdoor yoga classes have returned. But in the end, It is my responsibility to keep pushing through. It is also on me to remember that labor is not a permanent state, and, more importantly, that its purpose is to lead to birth. What new beginnings can I bring into being through the labor and the pain of the past year? A new reality is crowning right now, as I hug my mother for the first time in a year, and the crowns of the trees begin to turn green. And though it is 32 degrees in NYC while I write this, spring, the season of rebirth, is on the horizon.