Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23
Over the last few years, I’ve been teaching a class where we study the Torah line by line, frequently pausing to look at the text in Hebrew, spending an hour just looking at one verse or even just a few words, studying parallel themes and similar use of the Hebrew language elsewhere in the Torah. As we begin the second book of the Torah, we read a story that will shape the narrative of the Jewish people for all of history, namely the Exodus from Egypt. Because we were in Egypt, our story as a Jewish people comes together: Passover, revelation at Sinai (receiving the Decalogue), and a call to action to care for the strangers and vulnerable in our midst because we were strangers in Egypt. As powerful as the story is in English, reading it in Hebrew reveals a hidden layer of meaning.
It would seem that everything is set in motion with the actions of two midwives, known as Hameyaldot Ha’Ivriyot. The Torah tells us, “The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women … if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them. … And God dealt well with the midwives … and because the midwives feared God, God established households for them” (Exodus 1:15-17, 20).
So, who were these women? The classic commentaries interpret these two women, Shiphrah and Puah, as being Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister. Because of their righteousness and willingness to defy a direct order from Pharaoh, their family was rewarded and appointed to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. (See Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b, Rashi on Exodus 1:15.) This simple yet courageous act becomes the catalyst for the Exodus.
But the Hebrew may in fact tell a different, untold story. The phrases Hameyaldot Ha’Ivriyot, most commonly translated as “Hebrew midwives,” could also be translated as “Midwives of the Hebrews.” What’s the difference? While the former suggests that the midwives were actually Hebrew women who were a part of the Israelites, the latter suggests the possibility that they were not Hebrew. The argument could be made that they were Egyptian women working to help the Israelites.
What’s at stake here is the possibility that women from outside the Israelite community were willing to defy their Pharaoh’s orders in the face of injustice. As God-fearing women, presumably of the monotheistic God of the Israelites, they performed this act of righteousness and courage. Hameyaldot Ha’Ivriyot interpreted both ways suggests that the essence of religion is not belief in the existence of God or any other theological precept on its own, but belief that certain things are wrong because God has built standards of moral behavior into the universe.
While the classic reading of this text points toward the righteousness of the midwives coming from within our own community, the notion that they came from outside is powerful. Either way, it is through the example of these courageous women that we can learn about the moral imperative to care for all who are in need, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation.
If we consider that these righteous women came from outside our faith tradition and stood up for our people, how much more so does it make the case for us as a Jewish people to be called to action to help others? Examples abound: aiding Syrian refugees, putting an end to gun violence, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or building dialogue with our Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters.
At the end of the day, true Exodus and freedom can happen only when we realize that righteousness transcends differences. The midwives teach me that having the courage to act righteously and kindly toward one another is the essence of what it means to believe in and follow God. May the righteousness that we bestow on one another, on all people created in God’s image, enable us to begin a journey toward freedom.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.