We naturally associate the story of the Exodus with springtime and Passover, but we also have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in this story during the winter months. As we make our way through the annual cycle of Torah readings, January always brings us into the Book of Exodus, and we are studying it weekly right now. Our story of struggle and liberation never fails to fascinate and inspire me. This year I have been reflecting on the role of the midwives Shifrah and Puah, who are the first to confront and to defy Pharaoh’s cruelty. Their presence at the opening of the drama tells me that we are to see the midwives not only as individual heroes in the struggle against Pharaoh’s hard-hearted cruelty, but also as archetypes that the Torah wants all of us to emulate. For midwives are, in their very essence, servants of Life Unfolding. As Pharaoh represents the human capacity to be corrupted and deluded by power, so the midwives represent our capacity to revere and to serve life. That archetypal struggle is at the heart of the Torah, and of Judaism: who will you serve? Will you serve your own lust for power and control, such that all other beings exist only for your gratification? Or will you serve the God revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush, whose name is “I am Becoming”?
Judaism wants us to be midwives of life. Whatever our sphere of activity, in every encounter, we are to ask ourselves: how can I be a channel of Life Unfolding? This means that we will find ourselves in uncertain circumstances. Birthing is dangerous and certainly messy. Midwifery is not for the faint of heart. So much is out of our control, so much can go awry. It might be safer to try to simply keep one’s life in order. But if maintaining order is your sole purpose then you will miss the miracle of new life being born. You will miss the privilege, the joy, the exhilarating wonder of being present at Life’s Unfolding.
Grasping the power of this archetype, our tradition also compares Moses to a midwife. Growing up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses learns the ways of power. But Moses is not prepared to be a compassionate leader. When he runs away to the wilderness, he spends many years as a shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks. It is as a shepherd that Moses learns to be a midwife for life, for a good shepherd must care for his flock, know each one by name, protect them from predators…and birth the lambs and kids. The Midrash tells that the reason Moses arrived at the Burning Bush was that he noticed one of his lambs gone astray, and he went to retrieve it. When God saw that this kind of compassion for the weak had now become second nature to Moses, God knew that Moses was ready to lead his people. And so God called out from the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
Our tradition even considers God as a midwife. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, which means “the Narrow Place” or “the “Constricted Place”. And so one stream of interpretation sees Mitzrayim as the womb, the ten plagues as the contractions of labor pains, and the parting of the Red Sea as the opening of the birth canal, through which God the Midwife delivers the Children of Israel to freedom. Birth can be a painful, traumatic, and bloody process, especially when the womb is constricted or when the baby is reluctant to be born. Ah, but the celebration and awe we experience when the baby finally is released on the far shores of the birth canal. Moses and Miriam and the Children of Israel sing, “Mi chamocha ba’elim, Adonai, mi kamocha, ne’edar ba’kodesh” – “Who can compare to You, Midwife of Life, among all the powers of the universe; what can compare to this awesome and holy experience of being present at the birth of new life!” (Exodus 15:11)
The God we Jews worship, Life Unfolding, calls on all of us to transcend our fears, our arrogance, and our hardened and stubborn hearts, so that we might always choose the messy, exhilarating and holy task of being midwives for life.