The Valor of the Midwives

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Shemot – The Valor of the Midwives

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

With the death of Yosef and of his brothers, the fortunes of the people of Israel take an abrupt turn for the worse.  A new pharaoh ascends to the throne of Egypt, solidifying his rule by appealing to his people's historic proclivity for xenophobia:

 

He said to his nation: "behold, the nation of Israel is more numerous and powerful than we!  Let us deal with them wisely, lest they increase and then, in the event of warfare, lest they join with our enemies.  They would then wage war against us and leave the land!" (Shemot 1:9-10).

 

The honored status enjoyed by the Israelites under the aegis of Yosef, their life of comfort and serenity carefully cultivated between the rivulets of the verdant Delta, the political clout that they adroitly wielded among the courtiers of the Great House, all of it is brusquely swept away in a deluge unleashed by the neophyte god king eager to prove his power.  Incrementally but inexorably, the people of Israel are stripped of their historic and hard-won privileges.  While at first they are pressed into providing for the corvee, to strengthen and to build Pharaonic store cities, this is soon followed by more ominous developments.  Hard fieldwork and the making of bricks, both thankless tasks of backbreaking drudgery, are imposed upon them with rigor.  No doubt the Israelites attempt to maintain their crumbling composure, deluding themselves with each new blow that the Pharaoh's inexplicable rage against them has been spent, but there will be no reprieve:

 

The king of Egypt said the Hebrew midwives – the name of the first was Shifra while the name of the second was Pu'ah.  He said: "when you assist the Hebrew women at birth, then you shall look upon the birth stool.  If it be a male child then you shall kill him, but if it be a female child then she shall live" (1:15-16).

 

 

THE FIRST SECTION OF SEFER SHEMOT

 

But the midwives oppose the god king's command, and instead allow the male children to live.  Realizing that his directive will not be executed by these undependable sentimentalists, Pharaoh now pronounces the harshest decree of all:

 

Pharaoh commanded all of his people saying: "all male newborn children you shall cast into the Nile, but all females you shall spare!" (1:22).

 

Thus concludes the first section of Sefer Shemot, on an unbearably bleak note.  The people of Israel, seemingly innocent of wrongdoing, have been restrained and then enslaved by a brutal tyrant who will sanction even murder for the glory and grandeur of Imperial Egypt.  The little opposition to Pharaoh's wicked policies, from two minor and ineffectual women, is effortlessly overcome by his successive and sweeping pronouncement of doom.  And as for the Egyptians, nary a word of protest do they utter, even as they are called upon to perform infanticide.

 

And the reader, conditioned by the tone of the narrative as well as by his innate sense of morality to side with the oppressed in refusing to countenance wanton cruelty, is left to ponder the imponderable: where was God?  Where was the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov, who had so solemnly pledged to the patriarchs that He would redeem their children from foreign domination?  Why was He silent as the people of Israel were beaten into submission and then condemned to the bondage of the brick pits?  How could He not allow Himself to be heard even as the innocent male newborns were thrown into the raging river, their sharp and mournful wails soon muffled by the rushing waters?  The text itself highlights His absence, for while the promise of God's name pervades the final verses of Sefer Bereishit, in this first chapter of Sefer Shemot He is not mentioned even once!  Yosef, it will be recalled, in his final words to his brethren that concluded the Book, reminded them of His pledge:

 

Yosef said to his brothers: "I will soon die, but the Lord will surely remember you and bring you forth from this land, to the land that He swore to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Ya'acov."  Yosef exacted an oath from the children of Israel saying: "the Lord will surely remember you, and you will bring forth my bones from here!" (Bereishit 50:24-25).

 

 

FINDING GOD IN THE NARRATIVE

 

It therefore seems that when the opening verses of Sefer Shemot indicate that "a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef" (Shemot 1:8), they are telling us about much more than the changed political climate.  These verses are emphasizing that God Himself, the faithful Patron and Protector who had sustained Yosef and his brothers and had been lovingly recalled by the Viceroy on his deathbed, had been eclipsed by the sinister splendor of the ruthless god king.  Gone and forgotten were Yosef and his brothers, silenced was the God in whom they had so fervently trusted.

 

The hopeful reader, however, if he was cautious and careful in his reading, found His name in the most unexpected of places.  As the midwives went forth from the presence of the king of Egypt to do his nasty bidding, they were surely filled with terrible foreboding.  Who would dare to oppose his might, to provoke his imperious disfavor?  But who could kill an innocent child, even as he entered the world and filled his mother's relieved ears with his first throaty cries?  Painfully aware of their terrible predicament, the midwives marshaled their inner strength and decided to do what was right.  Only one thought could have stirred such fortitude, and only one Source could have inspired it: "The midwives FEARED GOD and did not do as the king of Egypt had commanded them, for they caused the children to live!" (1:17). It was the thoughts of God and their loving reverence for Him that braced the midwives, affording them the power to oppose the all-powerful.  It was the memory of a God of goodness that sustained them, of a God of compassion and justice, of a God of reckoning and retribution.  And thus it was that even as Pharaoh's massive monuments rose over Goshen, even as his proud obelisks towered over the brickworks to proclaim his eternal might, these two obscure women outshone him in radiance and overtook him in supremacy of spirit.

 

 

 

THE GOD OF THE RIGHTEOUS DEED

 

And asking ourselves once again concerning His involvement, as the heavenly beings themselves are said to enquire about the "place of His glory" though it fills the universe to overflowing (see the Kedusha of the Mussaf service), we are now startled by the response: God is to be found in the deeds of those who maintain their righteousness even as the world around them goes viciously mad!  In a heartless world seemingly bereft of His presence, in a society or situation so filled with brutality that to observe it even from the scholastic safety of the students' lectern is to recoil in disgust, God is not absent as long as there are good people who do what is right in spite of it all.  It is therefore through the agency of the midwives that God is introduced to the otherwise miserable landscape of the opening chapter of Sefer Shemot, for in their simple act of compassion they preserve His memory and His name from oblivion.  Is it not an uneven contest between themselves and the Pharaoh, they who are but lowly midwives, while he grasps within his tightly clenched fists the golden crook and flail that hold Egypt in sway?  But before the Transcendent One, all threatening pretensions of temporal power melt away, exposing for all to see the invincible mettle of those that serve Him.

 

So while the spellbound social historian and the affected architect, the awestruck archeologist and the enthralled academic, look upon Pharaoh's works and pronounce him an unqualified and outright success, the Torah dares to voice an opinion less sanguine.  The true measure of a man, it proclaims, is not to be gauged by the number of bricks that he heaps up (on the broken backs of hapless slaves) to memorialize his name nor even by the honor and prestige that he secures for his grateful subjects.  Rather, the real appraisal of a person's accomplishments is directly predicated upon his ability (or lack thereof) to demonstrate kindness and compassion towards the weak and the vulnerable, and justice and righteousness towards the oppressed and the downtrodden.  And according to that evaluation, Pharaoh King of Egypt, "enduring-of-dominion-like-Ra-in-heaven", was a dismal and unmitigated failure!

 

Conversely, the two midwives who would surely not have merited even a brief footnote in any breathless account – ancient or modern – of Pharaoh's accomplishments, so lowly was their station and so minor was their role, are here celebrated as the unlikely heroes of the narrative.  And lest one make the mistake of assuming, as many in fact do, that a reckless act of justice or compassion under dangerous or difficult circumstances is to be considered worthwhile only in accordance with its expected efficacy, the Torah goes to great pains to tell us that the attempts of the midwives were ultimately unsuccessful.  In the end, Pharaoh circumvented their goodness and undermined their efforts by pronouncing the ineffable: "all male newborn children you shall cast into the Nile, but all females you shall spare!"  But the eventually sad outcome of their efforts, says the Torah, does not lessen by even one iota the nobility of their deeds.  Their obscure names are thus preserved for posterity forever, even while Pharaoh's own name, with the passage of the millennia, fades from his maniacal monuments to self-aggrandizement.

 

TEXTUAL INTIMATIONS

 

Perhaps these truths are alluded to in a curious passage that describes God's intervention on the midwives' behalf:

 

The midwives feared the Lord and they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, for they preserved the children.  The king of Egypt therefore summoned the midwives, and he said to them: "why have you done this thing and preserved the children?"  The midwives answered Pharaoh: "it is because the Hebrew women are unlike the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous, so that before the midwife arrives, they proceed to give birth!"  The Lord dealt kindly with the midwives, and the people multiplied and grew exceedingly.  It came to pass that since the midwives feared the Lord that HE MADE HOUSES ("battim") FOR THEM.  Pharaoh commanded all of his people saying: "all male newborn children you shall cast into the Nile, but all females you shall spare!" (1:17-22).

 

What exactly are the mysterious "houses" that God provides to the midwives in consequence of their devotion and loyalty?  Most of the medieval commentaries understand that the term is used metaphorically, to suggest descendents or offspring.  Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra's (12th century, Spain) formulation is typical in this regard:  

 

The term "houses" is to be understood as it is used elsewhere, where it states that "God will make a house for you" (Shemuel 2:7:11).  The meaning is that He caused their descendents to increase, in reward for their preservation of the children of Israel.  The Gaon, however, explained it to mean that He made for them houses in which He concealed them so that they could not be found! (commentary to 1:21).

 

Rejecting the Gaon's (Sa'adiah, 10th century, Babylon) literalism, Ibn Ezra recalls the verse in Sefer Shemuel in which God gratefully acknowledges David's desire to build a Temple to His name by promising him in turn a dynasty of descendents that will follow him.  This dynasty is called in the text a "house", and literarily parallels David's own aspiration to build a real house to God's glory.  In a similar vein, the midwives are Divinely provided with "houses" that Ibn Ezra understands to mean "descendents", directly paralleling their own good works in preserving the children of Israel.  The adoption of Ibn Ezra's explanation demands of us that we part with the literal meaning of the word "battim" or houses in these contexts, and this is not unreasonable under the circumstances.  After all, why should the midwives be rewarded with literal houses in consequence of their good deeds, and how would we anywise understand these houses to have been assigned to them in the course of the unfolding narrative?  Are we to infer that they lacked physical domiciles until this point or else that they became real estate magnates sometime later on?  If, instead, "houses" here means descendents (as it surely does in the proof text from Sefer Shemuel), then we have both a reasonable explanation for the term as well as a just desert for the deed.  The deliberate blurring of meanings between houses, dynasties and descendents is provocative enough to warrant further thought.   

 

 

PHARAOH'S FRANTIC BUILDING

 

What is perhaps most striking about the idea that the midwives' offspring could be referred to as "houses" is that it is introduced in the midst of a narrative that portrays the Pharaoh's frenzied and feverish efforts to build his own "houses"!  Thus, the people of Israel are set to work "building store cities for Pharaoh, namely Pitom and Ra'amses" (1:11).  They are oppressed with backbreaking toil, "with mortar and with bricks and with all manner of work in the fields" (1:14) so that the Pharaoh might be supplied with the endless numbers of blocks necessary for his own buildings.  Even the birth stool referred to in the text, the low bench that the midwives are to attend to as they slay the newborn males, is called the "ovnayim" (1:16), and while the commentaries debate the exact derivation, the root of the word is from the Hebrew for "stone" ("even")!  In fact, the only other Biblical usage of the term occurs in a verse that describes the potter doing his work at the wheel, fashioning vessels of clay upon the "ovnayim" (see Yirmiyahu 18:3), and perhaps recalling once again the vast outlays of clay and mortar expended in our passage in homage to the god king.  And all that this arrogant man does, all of the buildings that he raises, all of the bricks that he impatiently demands, are for the sake of preserving his name, his dynasty and his descendents, for eternity!

 

The implications of all of this are quite remarkable.  While Pharaoh frantically labors to erect his own buildings, cities of brick and monuments of stone, all in order to safeguard his name and to assure that his line will prevail forever, the midwives go about their own unsung labors, quietly preserving the children of Israel.  And while Pharaoh's noisy efforts will, in the end, amount to naught, so that his grand memorials may endure for centuries while the eternity that he so craves will not be his, the descendents of the midwives, the counter-houses to Pharaoh's own, will never perish!  Thus the Torah pointedly drives home one of its most important messages: while we may, like the Pharaoh, expend much of our efforts in pursuit of material gains, God in fact gauges our progress as a function of our moral and spiritual accomplishments.  A kind exploit, a compassionate act, a deed of justice and of righteousness, these are things out of which our eternity is made.  The example of the midwives Shifra and Pu'ah lives on forever in our Torah, as they continue to challenge and to inspire others to follow in their selfless ways.  Try as he might, the potent Pharaoh, though buttressed by all of the resources that only a god king can muster, will never achieve the staying power of two simple women who boldly chose to do what was right.

 

Shabbat Shalom