Taste of Torah – ParashatShemot
Prepared by Cantorial Intern, Michelle Stone, Temple Beth Am
As we read the Torah this week, we start a new chapter of our people’s history. The transition from Bereshit to Shemot shifts the focus from Israel as a family to Israel as a nation. We go from a clan dwelling in Canaan to a nation living in Egypt. In the first few paragraphs of ParshatShemot, Pharaoh tries very hard to stem the tide of the increasing population growth of the Israelites. First, he enslaves the people, but when that doesn’t work, Pharaoh commands the me’yalldotha’ivriot, the Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all Israelite baby boys when they are born. The text tells us that these women feared G-d, and therefore they defied Pharaoh and they let the boys live, a crime surely punishable by death. When Pharaoh summons them and asks why the Israelite boys are surviving, they make up a weak, and frankly, not well reasoned, excuse about how the Israelite women don’t give birth in the same way as Egyptian women. Their fear of Pharaoh was clearly overshadowed by their yirat Hashem, their fear of G-d. But yirah does not only mean “fear,” it can also mean “to be in awe.” As midwives who experienced the miracle of birth every day, how could they not be in awe of G-d? These women were responsible for bringing new lives into the world. They respected G-d’s creations and valued human dignity and the sanctity of life. It might have been easier for Shifrah and Puah to just follow orders and not risk the wrath of Pharaoh, but these women knew right from wrong. They risked their own lives in order to not be complicit in the murder of innocent babies.
There is also a reading of the text that suggests that Shifrah and Puah were not Israelites, but rather were Egyptians. They are described as the me’yalldotha’ivriot, which can be translated as the Hebrew midwives, but can also be read as the midwives of the Hebrews. So if they were Egyptian, how much greater that they saved Hebrew babies when they were not Hebrews themselves? How much more commendable that they risked their lives to save children who were not of their own people? Children who were not only different, but the children of slaves.Shifrah and Puah may be our first examples of “righteous gentiles.” When these women looked upon the Hebrews slaves, they didn’t see an inferior race. They saw women and babies; women just like them and babies just like theirs.
When the midwives describe to Pharaoh how the Hebrew women give birth, they compare the Israelite women to chayot, to “animals.” They say that the women give birth very quickly like animals do in the fields, unlike the way the Egyptian women give birth. Pharaoh could understand this analogy because he never considered the human dignity of the Israelites – to him, they were no better than animals. He saw slaves; inferior, subhuman beings stripped of their humanity. Shifrah and Puah refused to succumb to that type of thinking. It might have been easier to yield – to dehumanize the Hebrew babies that were (possibly) not of their race or religion – in order to save their own lives. But they don’t. And for this, they are rewarded and heralded as heroines in our tradition.
Recognizing and valuing the dignity of others is being challenged in so many ways these days. Sometimes the challenge is on a grand scale – recent events in Ferguson and New York, this week’s tragedy in Paris and last summer’s matzav in Israel. And sometimes the challenge hits closer to home, and we fail to see the humanity of those right on front of us. May we learn from the examples of Shifrah and Puah and all strive to see the sacredness, the tzelemElokim, in all of our fellow human beings.