Sefer Shemot tells the story of the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt. At first they were prosperous and comfortable, but over time they became enslaved and oppressed. It is in the context of this oppression that we meet two of Amram’s children: Miriam and Moshe. These two prophets ultimately lead the Jewish People out of Egypt. They are the two featured “singers” of Shirat Hayam, the song sung at the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus. Our introduction to these two great Jewish leaders is in Parshat Shemot, and they exhibit a common important trait, necessary for all leaders. They both challenge the status quo in an effort to make it better.
The Midrash tells us of Miriam’s activism. When she was a young girl, Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish male babies should be killed. In response, Jewish fathers, including Miriam’s, decided to cease having more children. Miriam challenged this status quo, and provocatively accused Jewish men of being worse than Pharaoh; for the Egyptian decree was directed at only Jewish boys, while the fathers’ decision negatively impacted the potential for both Jewish male and female children to be born. The Midrash concludes that Miriam’s argument was accepted, and her challenge to the status quo was vindicated. Among those who listened to Miriam was her father Amram, setting the stage for the birth of Moshe, who led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage.
Our introduction to Moshe in Parshat Shemot is also within the context of challenging the status quo. After being raised in Pharaoh’s home, Moshe “goes out to his brethren” and sees an Egyptian abusing a Jewish slave. He acts heroically and kills the Egyptian. Instead of being congratulated or thanked, Moshe’s efforts are met with suspicion and scorn. At this point Moshe realizes that the Jewish People are stuck in their mindset and it will be very difficult to challenge their status quo. It takes some time but by the end of Parshat Shemot we read how Moshe is ready to challenge the status quo in Egypt and enhance the Jewish People’s condition; ultimately leading to their redemption.
President Ronald Reagan said it well: “Status quo, you know, is Latin for 'the mess we're in'.” It’s important on a personal and communal level to occasionally stop and ask ourselves why it is that we do what we are doing. Let us learn from these two great Jewish figures to effectively question the status quo’s of our lives in an attempt to better ourselves and our world.