Before the birth of Moses, before the burning bush, and before the first divine statement in the book of Exodus, there is the most inspiring example of spiritual heroism and physical bravery exhibited by the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah. At the very beginning of Parashat Shemot, Pharaoh commands them to examine the Hebrew babies for gender and kill the boys. But the midwives fear God and do not comply with what the Egyptian king commands; they save the boys.
Recognizing that we just had an extremely enriching conversation on this topic with Dr. Walter Herzberg at our lecture series last Thursday night, I revel in this attempt of Pharaoh at infanticide and the Hebrew women’s thwarting of it. Indulge me to weigh in my thoughts.
This story of the midwives’ disobedience is remarkable enough, but the rabbis ascribe additional merit to these brave women, finding evidence in the final words of the verse that they saved the boys. In the Midrash Shemot Rabba they ask, “Isn’t it obvious, since they did not listen to the Egyptian king, that the children lived? What’s the point of adding, 'They saved the boys?'” Our rabbis offer three explanations of the extra steps taken by the midwives. The first explanation is that after delivering the children, the midwives became “social workers” going to wealthy families to collect contributions of food and water to deliver to the poorer families. Another explanation is that they prayed that the children not be born with defects. And yet another is that they prayed the children not be stillborn. Granted, the Midrash sees the latter as self-interest; the midwives did not want to be blamed by the Israelites for any mishaps in the delivery. Still, the claim here is that Shifra and Puah (identified elsewhere in the Aggadah as Moses’ mom and sister Yocheved and Miriam) were not only willing to place their own lives in danger, but they were also intent on preserving the children.
This story makes me think about how often we have the chance to offer half measures that make us feel good about having done something good (or at least not done something evil) without actually doing enough to change the end result. We volunteer for an hour or we “do our part” with a modest contribution and move on, confident that someone else will take over the task once our interest in helping wanes. It is necessary to remind ourselves that it is never sufficient to avoid murdering another person; Shifra and Puah—as interpreted by the sages—teach us to take responsibility beyond avoiding evil and become sustainers of life by taking the extra step.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
Rabbi Abraham will be away the next two weeks, his message will return on January 10th.