Traditionally, Jews invite the spirit of the prophet Elijah to the Passover seder, designating for him a cup of wine. In modern times, some Jewish communities have innovated and dedicated a cup to Miriam, Moses’ sister and prophetess in her own right.
Though she’s been too modest to claim her place, we need to invite Shifra to the seder this year (and next year, in Jerusalem). After all, Shifra stood up to that cruel and vindictive Pharaoh long before Moses did. Her faith and courage perhaps may even match that of Moses. Most certainly, she made his possible.
For those who may be unfamiliar, Shifra was one of the two Hebrew midwives mentioned in the Book of Exodus. In the Biblical text, Pharoah brings the midwives Shifra and Puah into his palace and insists they kill the Hebrew boys on the birthing stool.
Some rabbis suggest that the Pharaoh also attempted psychological manipulation: “It’s so sad your Hebrew boys are destined for a life of slavery and struggle. Wouldn’t it be more merciful just to kill them before they even start such a miserable existence?” But Shifra is not seduced by nihilism nor impeded by fear. She and Puah risk their lives to defy the decree, sparing the baby boys (if only temporarily) from Pharoah’s wrath.
But Shifra’s story doesn’t end there. The Rabbis inform us that Shifra’s true identity was none other than Yocheved, mother of Miriam. Miriam turns out to have been Puah, the second midwife. After they refuse his orders, Pharoah decrees that his officers will throw the Hebrew baby boys into the Nile.
At this point, Yocheved’s husband (Amram) divorces her because he cannot bear the potential murder of any future son. Their daughter Miriam tells Amram that he is worse than Pharoah. “Pharoah has only condemned the boys,” she says, “but you have condemned the girls as well never to be born.”
Convinced by his daughter, Amram remarries Yocheved (Shifra), and she becomes pregnant. Miriam prophesies that Yocheved will give birth to a boy who will lead the Jewish people to freedom.
As she feels her baby developing in her body, can you imagine her inner struggle? She has reason to believe it’s another boy. Exactly what Amram had wanted to avoid. She knows all too well that Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler on earth, will do everything in his power to kill that child.
She wants to believe her daughter’s prophesying- that things will change, and this very baby will lead to the redemption. But she hasn’t had the benefit that Moshe would have later on. She has not seen a burning bush nor directly heard God’s voice. There’s been nothing around her but slavery, hardship, death. Almost everyone around her weeps bitterly at the suffering and wonders, “Where is God now?”
As she watched her belly grow larger, hearing the cries of bereaved mothers — there was so much she couldn’t control, perhaps even more she couldn’t understand. In the middle of her story, she could only make the next best choice. She chose to love. And from that love, she found courage and faith. She risked everything to save her beloved boy, just as she had for so many other mothers and children. And to this day, we benefit from her courage.
Dearest Shifra, please join us at our Seder table this year. We sit here in the middle of our story, not knowing the ending yet. The world around us can seem so dark. So much is out of our control. May God help us, as He helped you, to reach out of despair. To choose hope and faith. And from that hope and faith, may we act with bravery and love.