Parashat Shemot

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 
Parashat Shemot, 
December 2013 

The Hebrew Midwives 

What’s the oldest profession in the book? The answer is: midwifery. One thing we know for sure is that babies have always been born and mothers have always needed guidance through this momentous process. We can only imagine what midwifery must have looked like during the shadowy beginnings of civilization: a case of trial-and-error, where experience weighed heavier than empiricism. Women simply helped, held, comforted and assisted labouring women, during a moment in their lives fraught with death and danger as well as joy and triumph. 

To be a midwife is to be a priestess of the body, guiding a process that is deeply mysterious and utterly mundane at once. Yet birth is never to be taken for granted as we search for words to speak about childbirth respectfully, sensitively and honestly. Like all existential matters, it is hard for a young rabbi like myself to find the words that do justice to the human condition. None of us can be the full arbiter of the wide range of human experience, even if we have gone through a considerable part of it ourselves. Yet the beauty of being part of a textual tradition like ours is that the Torah lends us words and allows us to take an imaginative leap into those existential experiences. 

Although childbirth is no longer the perilous undertaking it once was, it is not free of danger or pain. For some women, birth is traumatic, for others it is empowering. Some women cannot bear children (in fact, the Torah wrestles openly with the pain of infertility). Other women choose consciously not to have children. Yet others are forced into motherhood reluctantly due to circumstances beyond their control. 

The power of the Torah’s narrative is that she gives us insight into an ancient but still relevant understanding of these things, allowing us to cultivate greater compassion and understanding. That is particularly true in this week’s reading. We meet a team of heroic midwives in this week’s parashah, Shemot. Shifra and Puah are remarkable women. Their story starts off equally remarkably: ‘vayomer melech mitzrayim lameyaldot ha’ivriyot asher shem ha’echad shifra v’shem ha’shenit puah’ – ‘the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives (literally, ‘those who cause childbirth’). Of course we know from the story that what follows from this is Pharaoh’s decree that all male infants born to Hebrew women be killed and that Shifra and Puah bravely refuse his orders. This passage is intriguing and raises more questions than it answers. 

First of all, isn’t it remarkable that Pharaoh would speak directly to these lowly women? Why did he, rather than outsourcing it to an emissary? Second of all, are the midwives Hebrew (what we would today call ‘Jewish’) or are they Gentile midwives to the Hebrews? The Hebrew (!) is arguably ambiguous. Why are we given their names? Surely, their names must be significant. And in a culture of polytheism, why and how did they fear God? If they were midwives to the Hebrews, what would they know of the God of Israel? Why did they defy Pharaoh’s orders and how did they ‘v’techayen het hayeladim’ – ‘cause the boys to live’? 

Countless rabbinic commentaries have played detective with the text. According to some, Shifra and Puah are actually Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses. Yet, the medieval commentator Abarbanel, citing the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, suggest that the midwives had converted to Judaism. Rashi explains there is meaning in their names: Shifra referring to the verb ‘leshafer’, to beautify – meaning that Shifra made each infant beautiful, rendering them loving, expert and customized care despite the duress of her task. Puah refers to the soft cooing sounds that she made to the newborn in order to put them at ease, again suggesting tenderness and love amidst the stress of her midwifery. In turn, Rashi states that the midwives went beyond the call of duty: not only did they have the courage to defy Pharaoh’s decree but they kept the newborn babies alive by providing them with food, sustenance and care. They didn’t fear Pharaoh. They feared God and loved life. 

However, we should go beyond speculating about the true nature of our heroines. If they seem larger than life, it is not because their story isn’t credible: history can demonstrate acts of unimaginable humanity and bravery again and again. They are larger than life because they try to prove a valuable point that goes beyond their individual characters. The midwives point towards a deeper truth. The story is not about them but about what they represent: a metaphor for many of the values we consider to be Jewish values, ethical values, Torah values. And so, we can see the Torah as the midwife of compassion, allowing love to be born out of the narrow straights of our life’s experience. Like a midwife, the Torah is gentle yet stern, cajoling us and supporting us through the difficult task of living our lives. Sometimes life hurts – it really, really hurts. But through love and courage and the support of our value system, we can birth meaning and goodness; truths to love unconditionally. 

Each actual and metaphorical birth story is unique. We can give birth in so many different ways, and many of those ways don’t lead to babies and parenthood and families. Our tradition acknowledges the value of each Jew and each human being, regardless of our reproductive capacities or the constellations of our relationships. What Shifra and Puah did was not about supporting a Natalist agenda but was about birthing justice. It is not that they brought human beings into the world but that they brought humanity into the world. This is a very important message. 

They offer us skill and experience to stand up against seemingly insurmountable injustice, to love tenderly and fiercely, to offer comfort and solidarity, to enter into a relationship with God that breeds compassion and justice. They teach us to challenge authority fearlessly and to fear what is truly important: the dehumanization of our fellow human beings and the desecration of God’s name. They truly are ‘hameyaldot ivriyot’ – the Hebrew midwives, the midwives of the Jewish people and all we hold dear about our Jewish values. 

Their call to arms is to bear something very precious that the world needs. And not only that: what they did, we all can do. Whether we are married or single, heterosexual or homosexual, fertile or infertile, old or young, male or female. We are all inheritors and guarantors of a tradition of justice that defies tyranny. 

We are all Shifra and Puah, we are all Hebrew midwives. Let us follow in their stead.

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