Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Shemot
This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.
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 refuse to obey, which allows Moshe 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. As a man, Moshe kills an Egyptian and flees to Midian, where he marries. He encounters God in the Burning Bush, Who directs him back to Egypt to free the people from Pharoah’s grip. Moshe returns and confronts Pharoah, who disdains Moshe and his God, and increases the workload of the slaves.
“The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives- the first was named Shifra and the second was named Puah- and he said: ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, and 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 spoke to them, and they allowed the boys to live.
The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said: ‘Why have you done this thing, that you have allowed the boys to live?’
The midwives said to Pharoah: ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are extremely vigorous, and before the midwife can arrive, they have already given birth!’ ” (Exodus 1:15-19)
The king of Egypt fears that the Hebrew nation is a fifth column in his country, so he enslaves them with backbreaking labour. However, that in itself didn’t negate the demographic threat of a growing people, so he plots to kill the baby boys, in order to arrest the birth rate of the Israelites. Two brave women defy Pharoah’s brutality, and become the first heroes of the Exodus story. Because they feared God more than the earthly authorities, Shifra and Puah are rewarded by God with “houses,” but the commentators disagree as to what exactly that means.
Genesis is filled with flawed heroes: Avraham is ready to sacrifice his son; Rivka plans Yaakov’s stealing of the birthright away from Esav; Yosef begins his adventures quite unaware of his own arrogance. 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. Their truly heroic stature was first pointed out to me in a dvar Torah given by a young Torah scholar, Sasha Zacharia, on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. Sasha saw Shifra and Puah as the inspiration for the women and men famous in history for their acts of conscience: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Scharansky, and so on. (I don’t remember if that was her list exactly, but you get the point.)
Sasha also raised an interesting question: 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 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.
A further question regarding the extent of the midwive’s greatness comes from a rabbinic disagreement regarding their identities. The ancient rabbis identify Shifra with Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, and Puah with Miriam, Moshe’s sister. (Cf. Rashi on verse 15.) Perhaps they wanted to add to the list of reasons we revere these women: not only was Miriam, for example, a prophet in her own right, and the leader of the women at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:20-21), but now we may also say that by her hand all the miracles of the redemption were wrought, for had she not saved the baby boys, Moshe and Aaron could not have survived to lead the people out of Egypt. By making a midrash that Miriam was Puah the midwife, Miriam becomes a much greater figure- she and Yocheved assume the status of the mothers of the entire Israelite people, for they saved it from extinction.
However, this midrash- that Shifra was Yocheved and Puah was Miriam- could be said to reduce their great act of conscience to civil resistance in order to preserve their people. If Shifra and Puah are “Hebrew midwives” in the sense of being Israelites themselves who happen to be midwives, then one could say that yes, they are still heroes, because they could have “sold out” their people and obeyed Pharoah’s orders, but then their greatness comes from loyalty to their people overcoming personal self-interest. This makes them no less brave, but in this case their bravery is that of soldiers risking all to defend their country- completely understandable, evidence of great personal character, but not necessarily evidence of a great “fear of God.”
The other possibility, argued by the contemporary writer Ellen Frankel in her book of feminist Torah commentary The Five Books of Miriam, is that Shifra and Puah were not Israelites at all, but Egyptian women. They were “Hebrew midwives” in the sense of being midwives to the Hebrews.
[ed. note: This is supported by the ambiguous Hebrew: Miyaldot Ivriot which can be translated equally as: Hebrew Midwives (ie. Adj. + noun) or Hebrew's Midwives (ie. noun + noun). This debate appears in the classical midrash.]
Evidence for this latter interpretation is the fact that they were called into Pharoah’s chambers, which might have been unlikely had they been part of the slave people, and Pharoah’s acceptance of their comparison of the Egyptian women to the Hebrew women. If they had been Egyptian women, they would have known the difference, but as Hebrew women (who presumably did not serve the Egyptians) they might not have been able to offer that alibi. As Frankel puts it, if Shifra and Puah deserve our praise as Jewish heroes, “how much more” do they deserve our praise if they were Egyptian, and willing to risk it all for babies who were not of their people!
Seeing Shifra and Puah 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 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.