The Book of Shemot begins with the reunion of all of Yaakov’s sons before they pass away on foreign soil. However, the second generation of B’nei Yisrael continues to multiply and spread out across the land of Egypt. Pharaoh starts to fear this new people and, worse, a potential uprising against him. Determined to weaken them, Pharaoh decides to subject B’nei Yisrael to relentless forced labor. Even more cruel is Pharaoh’s decision to have all male Hebrew babies murdered to prevent any man from revolting against him in the future. It is at this point in the parsha that the text introduces us to two midwives, Shifra and Puah.
Shifra and Puah are ordered personally by the Pharaoh to make the deathly selection between newborn babies: “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” (1:16). Shifrah and Puah famously disobey Pharaoh’s order. Dr. Avivah Zornberg notes that this is the Book’s first act of resistance, thus setting the tone for the rest of the narrative of Shemot.
I first wrote this drasha last year. After months of ongoing anguish and death here in Israel, I think it’s safe to say that no one will be able to sit comfortably and read a passage about evil decrees and slaughtering Jewish babies in cold blood. We had no idea how much death was coming our way when we sat in shul over Rosh Hashanah, chanting the Unetaneh Tokef:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted. But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.
We have never been part of a collective trauma on this scale since the Holocaust. We don’t know how many have died by fire yet: flames, guns, missiles, tanks. We can guess. We don’t know who will live and who will die an untimely death.
The parsha starts with G‑d calling shemot, or “names”: And these are the names of the children of Israel who came into Egypt . . . (Exodus 1:1–2). How many new names and faces have we learned over the past months? Kfir, Yarden, Shiri, Ariel, Be’eri… We all wear them through the day. They’ve clung to our clothes and hearts. We can’t shake them off wherever we go. We don’t want to, ultimately.
Shifra and Puah’s refusal of the cruel decree was heroic. However, their courage and heroism actually went way beyond just letting all babies live. The Pharaoh specifically told them to look first, i.e. to examine the baby’s sex, and then kill. A superficial reading of the text has Shifra and Puah quite literally looking away or turning a “blind eye” to the babies’ (male) sex. However, Rav Hirsch notes that, instead of passively letting the babies live (i.e. not murdering them), they did everything in their power to ensure that each child would not just stay alive, but thrive. Shifra and Puah prevented stillbirths, miscarriages, and congenital defects and help the mothers birth healthy children through hard work and intense prayer. We see that it is not the passive act of looking away but rather the active commitment to life that ensured our people’s survival.
Eventually, Pharaoh finds out and summons Shifra and Puah, asking: “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” They respond that they didn’t have a chance to interfere, claiming that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women”: כִּֽי־חָי֣וֹת הֵ֔נָּה, lit. “they have [more] life within them (1:18-19)”. Jewish women are so strong that they simply give birth on their own.
This era is, if anything, a testament to Jewish resilience. We commit. We are willing to go all the way. The soldiers and reservists out there and the women at home, now raising their children alone and still trying to find the humor in the day-to-day experience, like content creator Bazy Rubin. We are not afraid. We have modern-day Shifrahs and Puahs and modern-day heroine stories. 25-year-old Inbal Liberman saved her entire kibbutz by paying close attention and acting on her intuition. Rachel Edri of Ofakim kept herself and her husband alive by effectively throwing the terrorists the most grueling tea party in her home for hours and hours. My friend, the activist and writer Hannah Wacholder Katsman, whose 31-year-old Hayim (z”l) was brutally murdered by Hamas on his kibbutz, writes about how she is handling her very public grief around Hayim’s horrific death and making sense of its meaning, for herself and for those around her. You will find a truer model of resilience and, ultimately, love and hope in times so dark we couldn’t have imagined them in our days.
This parsha illustrates how life-altering the difference between just being alive and actually living really is. Shifra and Puah were committed to not just bringing the new generation into the world but sustaining it, thereby literally changing the history of the Jewish nation. Though we are all different, we are all capable of being metaphorical midwives as well as giving birth “on our own”. We can embrace life and to bring forth all kinds of life (i.e. strength, vibrancy, and potential), both within ourselves and in the lives of those around us, especially in a time of true crisis. We see it done. We keep it up, every day.