Tribal Loyalty or Moral Conscience

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard
Adat Ari El
Vice President, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Parshat Shemot

And the king of Egypt spoke to the (Hebrew midwives) or (the midwives to the Hebrews), and the name of one was Shifra, and the name of the other Puah. And he said, When you do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live. But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and said to them, Why have you done this thing, and have saved the male children alive? And the midwives said to Pharaoh, Because the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are lively, and deliver before the midwives come to them. Therefore God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and became very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses. (Exodus 1:15-1:21)

Parashat Shmot, the very first Torah reading in the book of Exodus, begins the saga of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. According to the Torah, Pharaoh justifies this enslavement because the Israelite population is growing so fast that he fears they will become too powerful. However, this plan backfires and, while enslaved, the Israelites keep multiplying at a prodigious rate. This leads to Pharaoh's command to the midwives Shifra and Puah to kill any and all male children. As the text above indicates, they fear God, refuse to do so, and are eventually rewarded. 

But who are Shifra and Puah? The ambiguity lies in the Hebrew phrase with which they are introduced; the Hebrew reads, "m'yaldot, ha'ivriot". This can either mean, "the Hebrew midwives", or "the midwives to the Hebrews." Rabbinic tradition favors the first understanding, going so far as to identify these women as Yocheved and Miriam, Moses' mother and sister. However, not all commentators agree. For example, Samuel David Luzzatto, (1800-1860) notes that it is inconceivable that Pharaoh would order Jewish women to kill their own folk and imagine that they would not divulge the plan to others, let alone follow the orders.

Personally, I lean towards translating this phrase as "the midwives to the Hebrews". Not only do I agree with the logic offered by Luzzatto and others, but I am moved to see our people's story of liberation beginning with an act of civil disobedience. For Israelites midwives to save Israelite children reflects tribal loyalty rather than true moral conscience. But to see Shifra and Puah as non-Israelites demonstrates how these two women were not responding out of loyalty or any kind of "in group" morality, but were acting on their sense of a higher moral vision that supersede anything anyone says, including the king.

What does it mean to offset our people's story of liberation with this courageous act of moral defiance on the part of non-Jews? One lesson that can be drawn is that our liberation is not complete until we show the same moral strength and fortitude in the face of other people's oppression. By tying our redemption to the moral acts of others, the Torah has set up a standard that measures our own liberation not by the narrow goals of what we have gained, but by the glorious vision of how we have sought to help others.