The Book of Sh’mot (Exodus) begins this week with Pharaoh getting more and more concerned that the Israelites are prolific and increasing rapidly in number. He quickly imposes harsh labor upon them to break their spirit and dramatically reduce their newborn population. The Israelites are resilient though, even in slavery, and when his first plan does not work–Pharaoh goes to the midwives Shifrah and Puah and says, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the baby: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”
The Torah tells us that the midwives, “fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” When Pharaoh found out what was happening and summoned the Israelites, they didn’t give excuses and they didn’t waver. At great personal risk, they simply told the Pharaoh that the Israelite women are so vigorous that they give birth before the midwives can even arrive. The midwives defy Pharaoh’s command to kill the newborn Hebrew males, purely because they believed in a moral cause. In other words, Shifrah and Puah disobey Pharaoh for the sake of choosing God’s laws over his.
The Rabbis in the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah) praise Shifrah and Puah for their defiance of Pharaoh. The midwives did not think twice about helping those who needed it. To them, it was not an extraordinary act–they simply did what they believed.
According to Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, Shifra and Puah’s act of civil disobedience was based on their deep rooted belief in the sanctity of human life above all else. They acted out of a conviction that there is a higher power than Pharaoh who demands that people act in an ethically upright manner, especially in a place and at a time where no one else is. The midwives make it abundantly clear that dissenting individuals can and must resist evil and immorality. In so doing, these two seemingly powerless women start a process of liberation that leads the Israelites to ultimately escape from Egypt and begin their journey toward freedom.
The point must not be lost here. The key to the entire Exodus story lies in the midwives courageous act of goodness and kindness. The civil disobedience of Shifrah and Puah changed the world and the course of the Jewish people. Without Shifrah and Puah, there would have been no Moses, no Torah given on Mount Sinai, and ultimately, no arrival in Eretz Yisrael, The Promised Land.
The motivation of the midwives is the absolute conviction that every human being is created in the image of God; that each person has value and that each person must be treated with respect and dignity. So this Shabbat, as we remember Shifrah and Puah, let us ask ourselves one essential question: for what issues am I/are we–willing to stand up and defend? Please email me your answers. I look forward to hearing from you.
As always, Susan, Atara, Micah and Elan join me in wishing you a Shabbat Shalom from our home to yours!
-Rabbi Joseph Krakoff