Shemot: On acting with courage in face of tyranny

Shemot

Exodus 1:1-6:1

Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-3

Since my college years, I have loved the story of the midwives, Shifra and Pu'ah, women who defied Pharoah's decree to kill all Israelite boys at birth.

Each year, my college mentor, Rabbi Al Axelrad, chose a recipient for his self-proclaimed annual "Shifra and Pu'ah Award." The award honored the life of a person who had carried on the tradition of the midwives in contemporary times, by acting with courage in the face of tyranny, standing up to injustice, doing what was right at great personal cost.

The "award" commanded our attention, as we came to learn about the universality of the Exodus story and came to recognize themes of redemption and liberation in our own day.

This year, I am engaged by a particular feature of this wonderful narrative. The text tells us that Pharoah instructed the midwives to kill all Hebrew boys at birth and that the midwives quietly refused.

Who were these courageous women? The text describes them simply as "hameyaldot ha'ivriyot," the Hebrew midwives. But the matter is not so simple. For two millenia, Biblical interpreters have disagreed about whether these were Jewish women serving as midwives for their own community, or Egyptian women delivering Jewish babies. There is a world of difference between the two readings.

The grammar of the sentence clearly suggests that the women were Jewish. In this reading, the phrase "hameyaldot ha'ivriyot" is composed of a noun (hameyaldot ) and an adjective (ha'ivriyot) describing that noun. An impressive array of commentators (Rav and Shemuel in the Talmud, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and Ramban) take this view.

The literary logic of the story, however, suggests that the midwives were Egyptian women working with Jewish mothers, in which case the phrase "hameyaldot ha'ivriyot " means "midwives for the Jewish women." This view is taken by Philo, Josephus, Midrash Tadsheh, Septuagint, and Abravanel, as cited in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot.

The logic is clear: Pharoah's command that the midwives kill newborn babies was cruel in the extreme. But to direct such a command to Jewish midwives would have been completely impossible. Only Egyptian midwives, presumably, could even consider slaughtering the babies it was their mission to deliver into life.

Reviewing many different interpretations on this point, I found one profoundly disturbing tendency.

Among the traditional commentators who see the midwives as Jewish, there are a number of sources that decide that Shifra and Pu'ah, the midwives named in our text, are actually Yocheved (Moshe's mother) and Miriam (Moshe's sister). It is delightful to watch the rabbinic sources dance and play, inventing justifications for such a fanciful interpretation.

But on a deeper level, this is a terrible way to read the story. The implication is: only Moshe's mother and sister could have been compassionate enough and courageous enough to defy Pharoah's decree. Inventive though it may be, this interpretation completely thwarts the message of the story.

This is the beginning of a narrative of liberation. Each step along the way, each small twist of plot and each minor character contribute something to the unfolding of a story of redemption. Against the background of increasing cruelty on Pharoah's part, we begin to see glimmers of a tale of justice and freedom and spirit. Two obscure Egyptian women, whose names would otherwise have been forgotten, chose to defy Pharoah's decree.

Surely, this did not stop the Pharoah's tyrannical plans. But these women, within the limits of their ability, said "no" to power, "no" to oppression, "no" to injustice — and here is the point — even though that injustice was directed against someone of another nationality, another ethnicity, another religion.

The spiritual logic of this narrative of liberation demands that we see Shifra and Pu'ah as Egyptian women — ordinary people who chose, at great personal risk, to refuse to participate in the barbaric acts that were normal in their day.

These women sowed seeds of liberation. Spiritually they were the sisters of the daughter of Pharoah, who found an abandoned baby crying in the river. Instantly knowing that to save this baby was to defy her own father's decree, she did what a person must do, and risked her own life to save a Jewish baby. These women are righteous gentiles, fighters for freedom, persons of conscience and faith.

We are so deeply in need of people like Shifra and Puah, people who can look beyond boundaries of race, nationality and religious definition, people who can love anyone. Until we can love one another's children, until we can risk our own well-being to save another's child, redemption will not come.

This year, may these women of spirit inspire us to our own everyday acts of courage. Amen.