By Shawn Shafner
Storah On The Road
It’ll be a few months still before we’ll start scouring our houses for chametz and celebrating the feast of Passover. Come March we’ll be sitting around our seder tables, sharing the story of how we were freed from slavery in Egypt. In synagogues around the world, however, that story starts this weekend with Sh’mot.
When we last left the Hebrews, they were shepherding blissfully in the bountiful green land of Goshen, which Joseph, the now-famously named “Prince of Egypt,” set aside for them. Fast forward a few hundred years and things have changed. There’s been a few shifts of government, the new guy don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no Joseph, and the Hebrews have long since abandoned their flocks and taken up slavin’. There’s quite a lot of them, however, and that makes the Pharaoh nervous. The slaves could rebel and overpower them, or become a fifth pillar in a war! So he decides to nip the problem in the baby, er, bud, and calls in the two top midwives for Hebrews in town. They are instructed to help the mother through her labor and then determine the sex of the child. If it’s a girl, give her a spanking and a lolly and send her on her way. If it’s a boy, give the mom the spanking and kill the kid. (Talk about birth control…) The midwives refuse to disregard their Hippocratic oaths, however, and the Hebrews continue to thrive. Boy does that make Pharaoh angry. Grrrrr! He enlists the help of all the Egyptians to throw baby Hebrew boys to the hungry Nile gods, and then we start in on the birth of this Moses guy. I’m sure he’s got a bright future, but he’s not in the limelight today.
I want us to picture two midwives standing in Pharaoh’s office. Surely they’re nervous—how often does the Pharaoh, a God, invite the midwives over? The government doesn’t usually involve itself in women’s rights…what could this be about? Jonathan Kaplan tells us:
The King of Egypt spoke to the [chief] Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shifra and Puah. He said, 'When you deliver Hebrew women, you must look carefully at the birthstool. If [the infant] is a boy, kill it; but if it is a girl, let it live.' The midwives feared God, and did not do as the Egyptian king had ordered them. They allowed the infant boys to live.” (Exodus 1:15-17)
But who are these heroes, Shifra and Puah? And what ever happened to the term “birthstool?” It’s not exactly clear. Let’s look at a few different translations of 1:15.
Kaplan: The king of Egypt spoke to the chief Hebrew midwives…
JPS: And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives...
Chabad.org: Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives…
Everett Fox: Now the king of Egypt said to the midwives of the Hebrews…
Wait, wait, wait. Because that last one is a little bit different, right? You’d started to think to yourself, “Actually, Mr. Blogster man, it’s kind of obvious. They’re the head Hebrew honchos in the midwife world!” If that’s what you thought, then you were snared into my trap! What if the midwives are not Hebrews themselves, but “midwives of the Hebrews?”
To the other extreme, Rashi suggests that Shifra and Puah are in fact Yocheved and Miriam (respectively Moses’ mother and sister ), and that the names serve to describe their style of midwifery. From the chabad website again:
Shifrah. This was Jochebed, [called Shifrah] because she beautified [מְשַׁפֶּרֶת] the newborn infant. [From Sotah 11b] Puah. This was Miriam, [called Puah] because she cried (פּוֹעָה) and talked and cooed to the newborn infant in the manner of women who soothe a crying infant. פּוֹעָה is an expression of crying out, similar to “Like a travailing woman will I cry (אֶפְעֶה) " (Isa. 42:14).
That gosh darn Torah, you know? We can’t just read her straight. It’s more like a choose-your-own-adventure where you get to make choices amid myriad options and midrashim. In researching this parsha, however, I was taken aback at how few translations were willing to maintain the ambiguity of Shifra and Puah’s identity, thus making the decision for the reader. What do we gain by making the midwives Hebrew? More, what are we so afraid of losing by making them Egyptian?
Yes, the Egyptians have been our cruel masters, and yes, they’re about to get it big time from our God, but maybe they weren’t all so bad. Sitting at the seder, we’ll be reminded that God hardens the mind and heart of Pharaoh so that he refuses to let us go. Because of this, horrible plagues will fall upon Egypt, ruining the economy, terrorizing, and even killing the Egyptians. It’s Pharaoh’s decision, but the whole population will suffer—the taskmasters, yes, but also the teachers, the farmers, the children. (“Won’t somebody think of the children?!”) Surely we, in our democrat-ish society, can relate to the quiet suffering of a people who watched, powerless while their dim-witted but determined leader drove them into one debacle after another.
We may still choose to celebrate as we and our ancestors reach freedom’s shore this year. Even as the Egyptian army is lost to the sea, we can do a little victory dance. May we also have a moment for those strong Egyptians who stood up to The Man, quietly helping their fellow man to survive. As so many heroes of the holocaust have taught us, we have always depended on the kindness of strangers, and a few generous gentiles. Maybe Shifra and Puah among them.