Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto
Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who smuggled 2,500 children out of the Warsaw Ghetto

An ode to those who outwit tyrants

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Numbers 22:2–25:9

Micah 5:6–6:8

Summertime in the village of Chelm, the legendary city of holy fools, is often sunny for three days followed by cool fog for an equal amount of time. The rabbi of Chelm would enjoy cool lemonade or warm tea, accordingly, a balanced ballet of beverages. Summertime b’nai mitzvah would run cool or hot, but in a random pattern for which there was little warning. This student, Ella, was a pistol.

Rabbi: Have you read Numbers 22:2 to 25:9? Did you see the hand of God …

Ella: I don’t like this Torah portion. My favorite characters, Aaron and Miriam, have died, the Israelites are struggling through Canaanites, Emorites and Amorites to get to the Land of Israel, and what’s worse, the whole episode takes place on a mountaintop between a crazy king, Balak, who runs on paranoia, and a guy whose only skill set is cursing people from afar, Balaam, and he never even meets Moses!

Rabbi: We see in the Midrash …

Ella: What’s worse, Balaam doesn’t even curse the Israelites. He blesses them! And where are the women? Without Miriam, it’s an all-guy show.

Rabbi: Not this again. Look …

Ella: I like that Balaam does not do what King Balak demands. He outwits Balaam, saying that the Israelites must be blessed because whoever curses them is cursed.

Rabbi: Yes, and in the Midrash …

Ella: I want to talk about Shifrah and Puah, who outwitted Pharaoh.

Rabbi: How do we get to Exodus 1:15-21?

Ella: Easy. That king Pharaoh demanded, “When you do the work of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them delivering, if it is a son, then kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she will live.” Like Balaam, Shifrah and Puah were in awe of God, not kings, and they let male children live. Like Balak, the king of Egypt accused the midwives, saying to them, “Why have you done this thing, and have saved the male children alive?” Shifrah and Puah said, “The Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and deliver before the midwives come to them.”

Rabbi: Here we see, “Then God tells Balaam to say to Balak, ‘God will not lie nor change the Almighty ruling.’ These people whom God brought out of the Land of Egypt must be blessed and not cursed.” The Midrash says …

Ella: And when Esther fools the king to trap Haman.

Rabbi: What? Esther 5:4?

Ella: Yeah. Haman has tricked the king, also a paranoid narcissist, to allow him to kill the Jews of Persia. Esther, a closeted Jewish woman, asks the king to a dinner party. Accompanied by Haman, the king attends Esther’s party and she reveal her true purpose: the unmasking of Haman and his plot. She reveals, for the first time, her identity as a Jew and accuses Haman of the plot to destroy her and her people. Haman goes down.

Rabbi: Here we read, “Then God tells Balaam to say to Balak, “God will not lie nor change the Almighty ruling. These people whom God brought out of the land of Egypt must be blessed and not cursed.” Balak repeats his demand. “If you will not curse them do not bless them.”

Ella: And Irena Sendler.

Rabbi: Who?

Ella: When Hitler and his Nazis built the Warsaw Ghetto and herded 500,000 Polish Jews behind its walls to await liquidation, many Polish gentiles turned their backs or applauded. Not Irena Sendler. She defied the Nazis. Like Shifrah, Puah and Esther, she persisted. She would not comply. She saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. As a health worker, she sneaked the children out between 1942 and 1943 to safe hiding places and found non-Jewish families to adopt them.

Rabbi: So you are saying that Shifrah, Puah, Esther and Irena Sendler are like Balaam in that …

Ella: No. I’m saying that Balaam is like Shifrah, Puah, Esther and Irena Sendler. You taught me that there is no time order in the Torah. I think Balaam looks at the Israelites, sees in them Shifrah, Puah, Esther and Irina, and is then inspired to say:

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob
Your dwelling places, O Israel.
Like brooks are they are turned,
Like gardens by the river,
Like cedars beside the waters,
The waters flow from God’s buckets.
When we outwit tyrants and the powerful, we are blessed

This column is dedicated to the fifth anniversary of the bat mitzvah of Alex, a sheina meidel.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].