וַיֹּאמֶר מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּת אֲשֶׁר שֵׁם הָֽאַחַת שִׁפְרָה וְשֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִית פּוּעָֽה: וַיֹּאמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת־הָעִבְרִיּוֹת וּרְאִיתֶן עַל־הָֽאָבְנָיִם אִם־בֵּן הוּא וַֽהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ וְאִם־בַּת הִוא וָחָֽיָה
Va’yomer melekh Mitzrayim la’meyaldot ha’ivriyot asher sheim ha’akhat Shifrah v’sheim ha’sheinit Pu’ah va’yomer b’yaldekhen et ha’ivriyot ur’item al ha’ovnayim im bein hu v’hamiten oto v’im bat hi v’khayah.
The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live (Exodus 1:15–16).
This week we begin the book of Exodus, a book that changed the world. With this story, the Torah introduced a new paradigm to human affairs. Throughout most of human history, kings and emperors have been granted god-like status. The king was unlike other humans, and the king’s word was law. The Torah, however, posited a Power in the universe that was greater than any king. (Hence, “King of Kings” becomes one of the names for God in our tradition.) This Power created all human beings in the Divine image, and therefore, early Judaism presented a direct refutation to the concept that any single human being could claim Divine status.
This was a revolutionary concept: No man’s word or whim could be law. A moral law transcended even the king’s decrees. To dehumanize any person, to treat him or her as less human than oneself, was a desecration of the very essence of creation. The Torah offers a “new world order”: kings and tyrants, beware! Every person is a child of God, and as such has infinite value, regardless of station. Do not subject and subvert them to your will for power. Do not reduce them to cogs in your profit machine. (Even though the Torah does not abolish the institution of slavery — this takes place only in modern times — the Torah insists that since slaves are human beings, they must be treated with decency and dignity.)
Our Torah sends a hero, Moses, to carry the message of this great new understanding, and to lead the oppressed to freedom. But Moses’ way is prepared by others — specifically, by women.
Shifrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, are singled out by name. “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live” (Exodus 15:17). Perhaps this is the first recorded act of civil disobedience. In the idiom of the Torah, the midwives acted as they did because they feared God more than they feared the Pharaoh. In our modern idiom, we might say that the midwives revered life more than they feared Pharaoh. Acting according to their conscience and compassion, Shifrah and Puah risked their lives to preserve life.
I especially love that the Torah pits midwives against Pharaoh as the first confrontation against tyranny. Midwives serve life. That Pharaoh would insist that the midwives destroy life highlights his almost total disconnection from this orientation. Pharaoh is the embodiment of self-absorbed egomania. The world exists only for his gratification. Shifrah and Puah’s lives are other-centered, dedicated to bringing new life into the world. How could they not revere and be devoted to the wondrous Creator of all? How could they participate in the horror of the king’s decree?
Shifrah and Puah cannot defy Pharaoh to his face. He will certainly have them killed. They must resort to the arsenal of the powerless: deception.
The king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are animals. Before we even get there, they have given birth!” (Exodus 1:18–19).
The midwives know that Pharaoh doesn’t see the Hebrews as fully human. And so, they play to his bias: “The Hebrew women are like animals, nothing like your civilized Egypt. How can you expect us to control them?”
The oppressive master always convinces himself that his slaves or serfs or victims are less than human. Throughout human history and ubiquitous still, this is the rationale that validates cruelty. But the victims of that cruelty remain resourceful. Despite their lack of overt power, they are experts at survival and know their master’s foibles. Shifrah and Puah expertly play Pharaoh.
Moses risks all to confront Pharaoh and lead the slaves to freedom. Moses is a hero. But the “Great Man” theory of historical change is sorely incomplete. Countless acts of anonymous courage and resistance maintain the hidden springs of hope and human dignity, so that they are ready for the moment when justice and righteousness finally begin to roll like a mighty stream. Praise to all the Shifrahs and Puahs throughout history and today — countless resourceful, brave, determined and almost always unsung heroes. Without their courage and wits, we would not be here to tell the tale.
This teaching is dedicated to the blessed memory of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972). His yahrzeit falls on the week of Parashat Shemot. Rabbi Heschel marched with his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, and then wrote King saying, “I felt my legs were praying.”