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Torah Commentary
Sh'mot (January 14, 2012)

Rachel Honeyman,
Director of Communications,
Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El

WHEN I TOLD a few people that I had chosen to write a Torah commentary on Parashat Sh’mot, I got some quizzical looks — “That parashah? But it’s so boring!” Well, I completely disagree. It is the parashah that introduces us to some of the most exciting stories in our heritage; it is the precursor to the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

In addition to setting the stage for the events that followed, Parashat Sh’mot contains some of the most powerful and daring, yet overlooked, female characters in the Torah, and that is where I’d like to focus.

We are told that the new Pharaoh in Egypt, who did not know Joseph, began oppressing the Israelites, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.” (Exodus 1:12) So, the Pharaoh devised a plan to wipe out the Israelite people.

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:15-17)

Who are these women? Why were they willing to risk their own lives to save these children? Most traditional readings tell us that Shiphrah and Puah are, in fact, Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses and Aaron, in which case their defiance is impressive but understandable; they are simply protecting their own. However, according to the Abrabanel, Shiphrah and Puah were Egyptian midwives for the Hebrew women (hence “Hebrew midwives”). After all, why would Pharaoh ask Hebrew women to kill their own? Surely, he wouldn’t think he could entrust them with such a task.

The Abrabanel’s explanation makes the most sense to me and shows the true bravery of Shiphrah and Puah. In a male-dominated society, these women took a stand; in a culture of violence, they defied their bloodthirsty king and stood up for what was right. What did they have to lose? Everything.

Just a few sentences later, in Exodus 2, we are introduced to baby Moses, the future leader of our people. We all know the story of Moses’ mother putting him in a basket and hiding him among the reeds in the river. Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, finds the basket and adopts the baby. I always thought that because Batya was a princess, she could do as she pleased; so, adopting Moses, while commendable, wouldn’t have been such a tremendous task. As I examined this story further, however, I realized that Batya, like Shiphrah and Puah, was a gentile woman risking her own life to save the life of a Jewish child. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “To save the baby would mean disobeying the royal command. That would be serious enough for an ordinary Egyptian; doubly so for a member of the royal family.” (Exodus: The Book of Redemption, p. 26) Like that of Shifra and Puah, Batya’s bravery is overlooked.

I find these three women inspiring on multiple levels. Not only were they taking strong action in a society where men ran the show, but they defied a king who, let’s face it, wasn’t exactly known for his forgiving nature. Further, they were Egyptian women standing up for what was right, regardless of religion, nationality or race. Shiphrah, Puah and Batya were the righteous gentiles of the Egyptian era, and they deserve recognition as such.


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