Wow! What an amazing time we had last Saturday night in our private viewing and discussion on the new movie on our exodus from Egypt, "Exodus: Gods and Kings." It was truly fascinating, bringing its own midrashic interpretation to the Torah's rendition of our being freed from slavery in Egypt.
In many ways it was serendipitous that we viewed this film as we now begin the book of Shemot, Exodus, in our Torah. 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 truly fear God and do not comply with what the Egyptian king's commands; they save the boys.
This story of the midwives' disobedience is remarkable enough, but our 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 'let the boys live?'" Our rabbis offer three explanations of the extra steps taken by the midwives. They became "social workers" going to wealthy families to collect contributions to deliver to the poorer families. Another is that they prayed 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 for any mishaps in the delivery. Still, the claim here is that Shifra and Puah (identified elsewhere in the Aggadah as Moses' mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam) were willing to place their own lives in danger.
This story makes one think about how often we have the chance to offer partial measures that make us feel good about having done something (or at least not having 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 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