This week’s parashah begins in Egypt, just as a new pharaoh, despotic and hard-hearted, rises to power. Threatened by the growth of the Israelite population, Pharoah condemns a formerly vibrant and privileged community to a life of slavery. It is a dark moment in our collective history. Into this seemingly hopeless scene emerge the heroines of our story.
In the shadow of this evil, two simple midwives plant the seeds of redemption that lead to freedom and justice. Pharaoh speaks to the Hebrew midwives, whom the text mentions by name: Shifrah and Puah. He orders, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth-stool: If it is a boy, kill him. If it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives had every reason to fear Pharoah, every reason to capitulate to his brutal command. Yet, they do not. The text continues, “The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.”
The midwives possess a reverence for human life and dignity that opposes Pharaoh’s genocidal impulse. Shifrah and Puah, through their audacious act of defiance, teach us that there are moral limits to power. They school us in what may very well be the first recorded act of civil disobedience. Their stance is an act of resistance. They gracefully and without drama step forward in a firm refusal to succumb to brutality and violence.
The text does not tell us that Shifrah and Puah feared Pharaoh or the consequences that might follow from this act of disobedience. Their reverence for the Divine impels them to do what is right and just. The rabbis of the Mishnah could have been talking about their holy work when they wrote: “in a place where there is no one to do what is right, strive to be that person.” (Pirke Avot 5:2)
Shifrah and Puah have much to teach us about spiritual resistance. Their protest comes within the realm of their expertise. They don’t try to use military force or magic (as Moses and Aaron do later). They fight tyranny with the skills they have at hand: midwifery. We learn that each of us has a unique voice that we can use to fight injustice.
When the midwives respond to Pharaoh’s anger, they cleverly make use of his own bias toward the Israelite women. They tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are virile and give birth quickly (like animals) before they can arrive to deliver. We see firsthand how Pharaoh’s prejudice is the source of his downfall. We learn not to let racism and bias cloud our own vision as we work to repair the world.
Shifrah and Puah teach us that when respect for human dignity does not come from those in power, we can still uphold this value. It is our refusal to stand for prejudice and hatred that ultimately prevents unkindness and cruelty more than any law. We learn that if evil legislation is transmitted from leadership we need not relinquish our commitment to compassion and love.
Pharoah ultimately realizes that the midwives won’t do his bidding and orders all in the kingdom to throw Jewish male babies into the Nile. Amazingly, other brave women rise to resist. Jochebed, Moses’ mother, puts her infant in a basket in the river to hide him from certain death. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the baby and raises him. Through their reverence for human life and refusal to give in to Pharaoh’s decree, these revolutionaries ensure that Moses is able to lead the Israelites to freedom. We learn that our small personal acts of resistance matter both individually and as part of a larger trajectory of justice.
Earlier this week, we commemorated the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Even as we celebrate his leadership and accomplishments, we are reminded that preserving human dignity requires our constant vigilance. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a vocal advocate for civil rights who marched in Selma with King wrote, “Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?”
Let the moral courage of the midwives guide us in our quest to stand up for the most vulnerable. May the courageous civil disobedience of Shifrah and Puah inspire us to champion human dignity and uphold justice, mercy and compassion wherever they are absent.
SARAH MACK, rabbi of Temple Beth-El, Providence, is president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.