Forgotten Heroes of the Exodus Story

By Carol Gabel Berlin, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Popular culture has brought the story of the Exodus from Egypt into our lives.  Moses, God and Pharaoh have starring roles.  We love this story for many reasons, especially because it serves to teach several important lessons including overcoming oppression and putting our faith in God.  “Remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt,” helps to frame our moral code.  This time in our history informs our Shabbat service.  It influences our interpretation of modern historical figures from Gandhi to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela.  Moses was a larger than life hero, as were these modern figures. How surprising it is to find in the Talmud, “It was the reward of the righteous women of that generation that caused Israel to be redeemed from Egypt.”  These are powerful words about a story that for most is about the heroics of men.

We find these women tucked neatly into the portion read today. Seven verses in parashat Shemot are about the midwives Shifrah and Puah.  With the mention of midwives seven times in as many lines, I believe we are meant to pay heed to these women, and particularly to the impact their brave and defiant actions had on the Hebrew people.

Pharaoh had demanded that Puah and Shifrah kill all Jewish male babies as they are born, but they don’t.   Pharaoh summons the midwives and asks them why they let the Hebrew boys live.  Puah and Shifrah explain to Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women.  They have lively births, and the babies are active before they arrive.  Thus they cannot follow Pharaoh’s decree to kill the boys as they are born.  This portion explains their actions by saying that the women are “God fearing.” God rewards the midwives with homes, and the people increase greatly.

These two brave women really mattered.   They acted as if everything depended on them, in a form of civil disobedience that caused our numbers to multiply, Moses to be born, and perhaps even allow us to be gathered here today.

Who are Puah and Shifrah, and what is it that makes them so brave?  What does it mean to say they are “God fearing?”  How did they become God fearing?  The answers to all of these questions can be found in their work.

The delivery of babies is a miracle of creation.  Today we may understand this scientifically, but it remains a miracle.  We stand in awe of each of these little creations, these new lives. Shifrah and Puah witnessed this miracle with each healthy birth.  How could the midwives disregard their life’s meaningful work and follow the Pharaoh’s orders?  Are they God fearing?  Although the Torah says they were, we might not choose those words. I understand this as coming to God through their actions.  Shifrah and Puah followed their hearts. The miracle of birth was their connection to creation, their connection to a higher power.

When Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill these small miracles, he shows that he really doesn’t understand the emotional connection of a midwife to her work, bringing forth new life into this world. Pharaoh was far removed from the miracle of birth, creation, and God.  Sadly, as this portion concludes, Pharaoh tries another method, demanding that all Hebrew boys be thrown at birth into the Nile River.

The midwives bring the babies through a narrow place, mitzrayim, to begin life.  This act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people.  This portion states, “The people multiplied and increased greatly.”  The Hebrew word for a narrow place, mitzrayim, is also the word for Egypt.  These heroic midwives bring Jewish lives into the world, creating the multitude that would leave Egypt, to leave the narrow place, Mitzrayim.  Their actions are a metaphor for the bigger story, the miracle of the flight from slavery to freedom.

Midrash tells us that Shifrah and Puah were actually Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, his sister.  I like this midrash because it positions Miriam, referred to later in Exodus as a prophet, as a central focus in the story of the Exodus, as a giver of life, as she is throughout the rest of our story.

In another Midrash, it is told that Miriam’s father divorces her mother to avoid the killing of children by Pharaoh. His example is followed by other husbands in the community.  If there are not new babies, none can be thrown into the Nile.  Miriam, also acting as if everything depends on her, says to her father, “You are worse than the Pharaoh because you are keeping all children from being born.”  This in turn causes the fathers to return to their wives, and in the case of Yocheved and her husband, leads to the birth of Moses.

Miriam, throughout our story, sustains life.  As Puah, she is life giving.  In her chastising of her father, the results are again, new life.   It is Miriam who places her baby brother into the water, but stays to watch him be drawn out by Pharaoh’s daughter.   It is Miriam who, during the travels we will study in coming weeks, finds the well that sustains the multitude as they move forth, out of Egypt, out of the narrow place.  Miriam is life giving.  If we are to accept that Miriam is also Puah, she begins as a young girl as a giver of life, a fighter for freedom.

An act of civil disobedience leads to the growth of the Jewish people, to the Exodus from Egypt.  Opposition to Pharaoh’s decree builds our community and leads us from that narrow place, from Egypt.  One of my favorite prayers that precedes the Amidah says, “Pray as If everything depended on God.  Act as if everything depended on you.”  Puah and Shifrah understood this.  We all should.

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