Morality and Memory

Shemot By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 31, 2012 / 5773

As we welcome this coming Shabbat, we turn to the second of the Five Books of Moses, Exodus.

Most significantly, this text gives birth to the Israelite People and their sacred mission in the world and throughout history. Parashat Shemot opens by narrating the descent of Jacob’s line into enslavement. Pharaoh pursues a ruthless policy of discrimination, enslavement, and extermination. Still, what is most striking about this first chapter of Exodus is not the brutality of Pharaoh, but the humanity of two heroines, Shifra and Puah. Pharaoh commands these two midwives to kill male Israelite children. In the first biblically recorded act of civil disobedience, Shifra and Puah respond by affirming God’s Image: “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live” (Exod. 1:17). What are we to make of the biblical story of the midwives—especially in contrast to the behavior and wishes of Pharaoh?

Nahum Sarna writes,

What is remarkable is that the names of these lowly women are recorded whereas, by contrast, the all powerful reigning monarch is consistently veiled in anonymity. In this way the biblical narrator expresses his scale of values. All the power of the mighty pharaoh, the outward magnificence of his realm, the dazzling splendor of his court, his colossal monuments—all are illusory, ephemeral, and in the ultimate reckoning, insignificant, and they must crumble into dust because they rest on foundations empty of moral content. Seven times in this brief episode the term “midwife” is repeated, an index of the importance that Scripture places upon the actions of the women in their defiance of tyranny and in their upholding of moral principles. (Sarna, Exploring Exodus, 25)

What is just as telling as what Sarna points out in his sensitive reflection, is the way in which Torah deals with the identity of these midwives. They are referred to as miyaldot ha-ivriot. This Hebrew term is ambiguous: it could mean “the Hebrew midwives” or it may just as well be translated as “the midwives of the Hebrews.” In other words, the women could be Hebrew or Egyptian. This ambiguity is powerful, conveying the message that no one people holds a monopoly on compassion and morality. While these remarkable women may have been the homegrown heroines of the Jewish People, they may also have been the first “righteous Gentiles” in history. Ultimately, our anonymous Pharaoh disintegrates into the dustbin of history, and our caring midwives, Shifra and Puah, become an inspiration to the Jewish People and all of humanity. May such overflowing compassion and good always triumph over hatred and evil.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.