Reflections – Shemot
This action-packed Sedra recounts the increase in Jacob’s descendants in Egypt, their persecution, and the birth and calling of Moses to lead his people out of slavery. The increase from seventy souls who went into Egypt to tribes caused the Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” some consternation. Their burdens multiplied and Pharaoh stirs up hatred in the native population using language that has been heard many times in human history.
“They are different.”
“They are everywhere.”
“There are too many of them.”
“They may make common cause with our enemies.”
Finding increasing persecution ineffective, Pharaoh enlists the help of the Hebrew midwives to murder the male Hebrew children at birth.
Who were these midwives? They are named as Shifra and Puah, which are Egyptian names.
There are various theories about whether they were Egyptian or Hebrew.
The Hebrew appears deliberately ambiguous.
“Miyaldot Ivriot” could mean “midwives to the Hebrews” or “Hebrew midwives”.
Shifra means to beautify or swaddle, and Puah comes from a word meaning to cry or groan, a “baby whisperer” to soothe the cries of the mother and newborn. Their names mirror midwifery roles to this day.
Midwifery in Egypt was bound up with religious rites, and these midwives would have been at the top of their profession. It is highly unlikely that Pharaoh would have summoned slave women from a despised shepherd people into his presence. The midwives would have had reverence for their calling and the miracle of birth, and, horrified at Pharaoh’s command, found the strength to defy him. To refuse would have meant their death, and others put in their place could comply.
We are told that the midwives “feared God”. The Hebrew is in the plural, possibly deliberately to draw attention away from ethnicity.
These midwives then play to Pharaoh’s prejudices by saying that Hebrew women deliver “like animals” and do not need a midwife!
The Egyptian people are then made complicit by being ordered to spy and murder, a scenario with which we are today, regrettably, all too familiar.
The story of the Hebrew midwives takes up only six verses, but it has relevance for us today. Small actions by themselves may appear insignificant, but can cause change. If Shifra and Puah had complied, and Pharaoh’s daughter had not had compassion on an alien child, there would have been no Moses. The children of Israel would have remained enslaved both physically and spiritually.
Many of us with immigrant ancestors have adapted and made a great contribution to life in this country with its proud record of fighting tyranny. We are commanded “not to wrong a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.
Strangers need our support and understanding.
We often rush to judgement as to the motives of others. An appearance of going along with the status quo may hide active help on our behalf. During World War II, people paid with their lives for doing precisely that.
Today, Shifra and Puah’s courageous action is regarded as the first record of non-violent resistance to tyranny. Their names are immortalised in awards given to those who fight for freedom and mother and baby organisations. To be a midwife – to support a woman and her family during childbirth – is an honour and privilege.
We do not know how these midwives practised their art, but they demonstrated their moral and ethical standards. May we all recognise the occasions in our lives when we need to make a stand, and be given the strength and wisdom to make the right decision.
Teresa Kosmin is a retired midwife and a long standing member of New London Synagogue.