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The Exodus begins!

Parshat Shemot

Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

With this week’s portion we begin the book of Exodus or Shemot in Hebrew.   Shemot does not mean Exodus; it means names as the book of Exodus begins with a listing of the names of those who went down to Egypt with Jacob when Joseph invited them.  The opening verses are a bridge from the end of the Genesis story of Jacob’s and Joseph’s death to the situation the Hebrews found themselves in when a new Pharaoh took over.

 The new king enslaved the Hebrews and made their lives miserable.  He feared the multitudes of Hebrews that lived and came from the initial 70.  They were an immigrant people who thrived and prospered in Egypt especially under the protection of their patron, Joseph.

So they were became slaves to Pharaoh. They were oppressed and their actions and movement greatly restricted.  They were forced labor to build Pharaoh’s garrison cities.  But the Torah portion tells us that the more they were oppressed the more children they had.  It was the Hebrews response to survival! And so the Pharaoh orders the midwives two especially named Shifrah and Puah to kill the male babies but let the girl babies live.

There is a lot of discussion in the commentaries about Shifrah and Puah. Many of the Torah commentators identify Shifrah as Yocheved (Moses’ birth mother) and Puah as Miriam (Moses’ sister).   Other commentators said that these two women were not Hebrew midwives but midwives for the Hebrews.  While other commentators like Nachmanides tells us that Shifrah and Puah were the supervisors of more than 500 midwives because two could not meet all the needs.

But Shifrah and Puah are life givers not life destroyers and our torah portion says, Shifrah and Puah fear God and do not follow the king’s orders. In fact they lie to the king when summoned saying, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptians women; they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (Gen: 1:19). They lie to the King.  They protect the baby boys.  They defy the court for a higher power that teaches “Choose Life”.

These two are indeed social activists. They challenge the law of the land. They defy the Pharaoh for their beliefs and religious convictions.  Theirs is an act of civil disobedience; perhaps the first act. These two women whether Hebrew or Egyptian find strength in one another and in their faith as it says in the text they “feared God.” But in Hebrew the word fear and awe are the same root and a legitimate way to re-read the text might be to say they were in awe of God.

God blessed Shifrah and Puah for their courage and acts of social justice.  Our texts tell us that God established households for them.  Something not usually done for women!  But as Rashi relates “The priestly and Levitical houses came from Yocheved through Aaron and the royal house came from Miriam for David was descended from her as explained in the Talmud (B. Sot 11b).

From Shifra and Puah we learn to speak truth to power. To challenge indecency and challenge orders from imperial authorities that would violate our ethics and foundations of Torah.   We learn from these two women about the sanctity of life and we learn that God wants us to challenge the oppressor.  

There still is much work to be done in this regard.  Let us be inspired by their work, their story and willingness to speak up. And in this New Year of 2010! SPEAK UP!