August 7, 2018

The power of the midwives (Shemot)

Early on in Parshat Shemot we are introduced to a new king of Egypt who is either unaware of the positive impact that Bnei Yisrael have had on Egypt, or chooses to ignore this fact. This new Pharoh began his reign by initiating the very first set of anti-Jewish laws, but to the frustration of Pharoh, ‘the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and spread’ (Shemot 1:12). This enraged Pharoh who then placed crushing labour onto the Bnei Yisrael, but despite all his efforts, the Jewish spirit was not quashed. However, Pharoh was determined to destroy Bnei Yisrael, and so he decided to take a different approach by instructing Shifra & Puah, the Hebrew midwives, to kill all of the baby boys born to Bnei Yisrael.
Shifra & Puah were faced with a conflict. While some, like Ibn Ezra, suggest that they were senior midwives who carried some type of management responsibility, they were certainly not individuals who carried any political power. But even though they were bound to the authority of the Pharoh – and even though they risked their own lives by disobeying orders – they felt a greater duty to a higher power. Therefore, rather than following the orders they had been given, Shifra & Puah did not kill the baby boys and, by doing so, performed the first recorded act of civil disobedience.
However, Shifra & Puah didn’t just ignore Pharoh’s order. Instead, as is clear from a close reading of the verses, these two women stood their moral ground against the king of Egypt and emerged as moral victors. As Judy Klitsner explains in her book ‘Subversive Sequels in the Bible’, while Pharoh command them to kill the baby boys, they responded by giving life, and while Pharoh instructed them with the word וראיתן (literally, ‘when you see them’) to look out for the baby boys, Shifra & Puah scramble Pharoh’s orders as expressed by the word ותראין (literally, ‘and they feared [God]’).
As Judy Klitsner ingeniously observes, the names Shifra (שפרה) & Puah (פועה) contain all the letters of the name Pharoh (פרעה) as if to indicate that ‘these two women are pitted as equal to Pharoh’, and that ‘in actually determining who would live and who would die, they ultimately emerge as superior to the mighty king of Egypt.’
We learn a stunning lesson from here which is that true power is found among those who save lives rather than those who take lives, and true leadership emerges from the acts we do, rather than the positions we hold.

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