Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Shifra

This morning started with the clear intention to delve deep into the character of the protagonist of my film. My screenplay has been on hold for over a year. I'm ready to start again. More than ready. I'm buzzing.
I 'know' Rachel, my main character well. But I don't know how to visually bring her to life, how to explain her complicated back story on screen. This feels essential to the end of the story. And I don't know how to make her relationship believable, because I'm not sure I believe such supportive relationships actually exist.
So I'm now open to allow her to change and grow in any way she leads, yet the seeds of the original synopsis feel like my life boat.
What if I abandon that also, and start completely afresh ? What if I take her relationship away,and make her a single mother? Well a single 'person,' because a mother she no longer is. Her new born baby's been abducted. This is the start of the film.

Nope. Don't think I can do that yet.
But, for starters, my heroine needs a new name.

This is how it all unfolded.

After breakfast this morning, I go for a hike on the mountainside beside my house. I fill my lungs with the scent of the almond blossom , soak in the intense blue of the cerulean sky, sit under a tree and meditate. Then I find a path I've never explored before. Imagine living in a village for nine years and still there are many unknown tracks.
My body, which has been sick with nausea for the last ten days, now seems alive and pulsating with energy. It's a bit like a part of me has been hibernating for far too long, and suddenly, yesterday, it woke up.

So after the hike , I search the Internet for Jewish names. There are many. I have a feeling Rachel's new name should begin with an S, just a hunch, and as soon as I find Shifra, I have that 'ah ha' moment, and also possibly part of the title of the film.

SHIFRA, meaning beautiful, lovely.

Perfect.

You have to use lots of mouth muscles to say it. It's a delicious word to play with in your mouth. Try it? String it out.
Excitedly, I then check out other Shifra's, and find them all to live up to the meaning of their name.

The story of one of the 'earliest' Shifra's has touched me deeply.
I have a feeling that in this story the seed of some kind of change for my protagonist may be hiding.

Take what you like from it and leave the rest.

Shifra and Pauh.

The Book of Exodus begins where Genesis left off: with the seventy descendants of Yaakov who came down to Egypt under the protection of Yosef. A new king arises in Egypt, who fears the growing Hebrew tribe; he issues orders to kill newborn Hebrew boys. Two midwives Shifra and Puah refuse to obey, which allows Mosses to be hidden away for a few months after he is born. Left in a basket in the river, he is found by the daughter of Pharoah, who raises him in the royal household. I'd forgotten that bit if the story.

The king of Egypt says to the Hebrew midwives-
'When you deliver the Hebrew women, when you see them on the birthing stone, if it is a son, you shall kill it, and if it is a girl, she shall live.'
But the the midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt told them, they allowed the boys to live.

Some time later, the king summoned the midwives and asked,
'Why have you done this thing, why have you have allowed the boys to live?'

Shifra and Pauh replied,
'Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, they are extremely vigorous, and before the midwife can arrive, they have already given birth!' " (Exodus 1:15-19)

Genesis is filled with flawed heroes: Avraham is ready to sacrifice his son; Rivka plans Yaakov's stealing of the birthright away from Esav.
Shifra and Puah, on the other hand, seem like truly outstanding moral figures: at great personal risk, they defy Pharoah, for no other reason than their religious convictions. We might have expected them "just to follow orders," as men and women have done countless times in similar situations, from Nazi Germany to Stalinist Russia to Cambodia under Pol Pot.
Yet they don't- somehow, they overcome fear and complacency and actively resist the immorality at the core of their society. Shifra and Puah it can be said are the inspiration for the women and men famous in history for their acts of conscience: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Scharansky, and so on.

Would the midwive's stature as moral heroes have been even greater had they not lied to Pharoah, but instead committed "true" civil disobedience? ( I.e., the kind of civil disobedience in which they do not lie, but instead accept the consequences of their actions in order to demonstrate the evil against which they protest. ) One could argue that the highest level of conscience in a corrupt society involves an active confrontation with the authorities; we might think of the prophet Natan confronting King David (2 Samuel 12), or Martin Luther King's marches into the Southern police dogs, or the brave students of Tianamen Square. Yet there is a certain moral calculus involved- if Shifra and Puah had told the truth to Pharoah, they doubtless would have ended up jailed or dead, and then would not have been able to save the otherwise doomed baby boys.

The example from history that comes to mind is ( the incredible) Harriet Tubman, smuggling escaped slaves out of the American South to freedom in the North- secrecy was the only way to preserve the life-saving network of the Underground Railroad.

Modern scholars have suggested Shirfa and Puah were not Jewish. Seeing them as Egyptian women recasts their act of "conscientious objection" as not only moral heroism but exemplary spiritual vision. This is what it means to fear ( revere?) God: to see not categories or labels but only human beings, made in the Image of the Divine - no matter how different they are, no matter how distant, no matter how much you've been taught to hate them, no matter how much they are the "other." For if Shifra and Puah were Egyptian women, then perhaps they, no less than Abraham, deserve to be counted among the very first true monotheists- for they saw the suffering and injustice among the despised slaves, and were willing to cross barriers of politics, race, class, religion and language to act as God's partners in the redemption of the world. Their "fear of God" began as conscience but fulfilled itself in holy actions, preserving life where death reigned, and bringing hope to the desperately oppressed.

Extracts from an article from The Adult Center for Liberal Jewish Learning.