Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 23rd Teven 5777, 21st January 2017
Today’s Torah reading lands us in a new world. True, Egypt was the locale for the final chapters of Bereshit, but mainly as a background against which the story of Yosef and his brothers and his father was played out. Only in Shemot do Egypt, its leader and its people become key players in the action.
As in many other transitions in the Torah, we don’t know exactly how many years have gone by. But enough years have passed for the pendulum to have reached the other end, so that the extended family and offspring of the ruler Yosef and his well-heeled siblings are now downtrodden and browbeaten slaves. A cynic might call it poetic justice: the offspring of the person who enslaved all of Egypt (Yosef) are now themselves enslaved.
Our parsha is rife with intrigues and tensions but also with acts of altruism and bravery, as we will see.
The tension is notched up first by Pharaoh’s decree that all males be killed. And here we encounter an act of altruism and bravery that far exceeds what meets the eye. We are told that two midwives, Shifra and Puah, refused to kill the newborn males and gave Pharaoh the cockamamie explanation that the Israelite women were too strong and gave birth too quickly for them, the midwives, to do Pharaoh’s dirty work. And Pharaoh believed them.
Is it not strange that Pharaoh would believe the story? It would be very strange if Shifra and Puah were, as is usually read, Hebrew midwives. Because if they were Israelites, why should Pharaoh have believed them? After all, it was their vested interest to keep the Israelite children alive. Was Pharaoh so unfamiliar with the processes of birth that he couldn’t spot a lie when it landed on his nose?
But what if they weren’t Hebrews? What if they were Egyptians? As Rabbi A.B. Bonnheim points out, several commentators, including Josephus and the famous Abarbanel, postulate that they were Egyptians. What was their explanation? A small change in pronunciation. Instead of reading LAM-yaldot ha’ivriot (to THE Hebrew midwives) read LIM-yaldot – (midwives who served the Hebrews but were not necessarily Hebrew).
This solves the problem. Pharaoh could trust them because they were not prejudiced, at least not in the way he thought.
If we accept this reading, we have to reevaluate and strongly ramp up our admiration for these midwives. They were not acting out of personal interests but rather out of a moral imperative that said you don’t kill babies, no matter what adjectives you add to them – such as Hebrew, or dirty or dangerous or leftist. A baby is a baby.
This also explains the “reward” that God gave them: He made them houses. In other words, he ensured their continued existence within the people of Israel. If they were Hebrews, such a reward is nice but not special. But for Egyptians – it is like giving them a Yad Vashem medal of Righteous Gentiles.
Of course, this is not the only possible reading of the story. According to HAZAL, Shifra and Puah were actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe’s mother and sister, among others. But then, HAZAL always offered a few options to choose from.
While we’re on the subject, Shemot is probably the most feminist parsha in the Torah. We have five heroines: Shifra and Puah; Pharaoh’s daughter, who has mercy on the child floating down the Nile; Miriam, Moshe’s sister, who brazenly offers to find a Hebrew breast on which Moshe can suckle; and, finally Zippora, Moshe’s wife, who in a very obscure story saves Moshe’s son who had not been circumcised.
All of these stories, however, are merely the backdrop for the introduction to Moshe, the ultimate leader in Jewish history. What made Moshe so eminently suited to his role?
For one thing, he didn’t want the job in the worst way. His refusal is understandable on several levels. First, he is overwhelmed by the weight of the mission and the implicit faith that God has in him to carry it out. This does not sit well with a person described as the most humble man on earth (Uriah Heep, eat his dust!).
Second, he probably remembered what the Israelites were like. As a young prince he took the initiative and killed an Egyptian who was beating up an Israelite. The next day the Israelites ganged up on him and threatened to out him to Pharaoh. So, thanks God, but no thanks. Yet, when he finally and grudgingly accepts the mission, he carries it out with all his heart and soul, for the rest of his life.
It is fitting that as a new Pharaoh arises in Egypt, a new president has just taken office in what is still the most important country in the world (no matter what we say about us being the center of the world). The new president is like the new Pharaoh in one respect. Just as the new Pharaoh did not know Yosef, the new president does not wish to acknowledge (in any positive way) the Obamas, Bushes, Clintons, Lincolns or Washingtons who preceded him. Moreover, he purposely spits on “politically correct” behavior (which may not be so bad in and of itself) and he certainly does not subscribe to the practice of noblesse oblige, in which a person in power does not have to act like a schoolyard bully whenever anyone criticizes him. He seems to forget the adage that for a politician, publicity, whether good or bad, is good. Only time, the next four or eight years, will tell whether this modus operandi is a façade or an essence, whether the man taking office is what he appears to be or is actually a superior statesman in disguise.