Frederick L. Klein

Shemot: The Beginnings of Civil Disobedience

Orazio Gentileschi - Museo del Prado, Madrid Finding of Moses , 1633 (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Elie Wiesel often said the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.  While there clearly were those who spoke up in Nazi Europe, the ‘righteous gentiles’, many more said nothing and turned the other way.  The silence of the masses was, and continues to be, the key to the survival of  tyrants and would-be tyrants, who know that their power can only be maintained through both the brutal suppression of minority voices, as well as the overwhelming indifference of most others, silenced into submission.

In the late nineties, the political philosopher Francis Fukayama wrote a very influential work, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that following the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was charting an inexorable path towards a liberal order with global capitalist markets.  The twenty first century would see increased global cooperation and prosperity,  thereby reducing ethnic loyalties and nationalistic projects of expansion, the basis for most wars.  In truth, after almost a quarter of a century, it is difficult for me to see this work in any other way than as a messianic hope.  Beginning with the opening salvo of 9/11,  religious-ethnic and fascistic regimes seem to be mushrooming throughout the world.  In our own country, there are large parts of the population that sympathize with autocratic messages and see America as an ethnically white and Christian country.   There are others who would rather isolate themselves from the growing clash of civilizations which will determine the world order. Perversely, some leaders idealize autocratic leaders of other countries.  In sum, history does not simply inevitably lead in a Hegelian manner towards increased democracy; it is a battle, and a battle that needs people to speak up, sometimes at significant risk.

I cite this because in our weeks parashah we are confronted perhaps with the prototypical fascistic regime.  Pharaoh seeks to consolidate his global power and requires a scapegoat.  He chooses an ethnic group, “the Hebrews”, who are Semitic and different, and yet are now pervasive throughout society.  While before they were in the district of Goshen, it seems they have now “spread throughout the land” (Ex. 1:7). [1]  He announces to his people they are now a political threat, a subversive element. The Hebrews are reproducing quickly, they are ‘swarming’, and will soon align with the enemies to replace us, an argument today very resonant with certain circles in our country.   It is this fear that creates the foundation for the beginning of enslavement, as task masters are assigned to impose hard labor.   The goal is both to control them as well as to lower birth rates, as why would one bring children into such a world?  The Torah is emphatic that the strategy fails, as the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied.  This fact only exacerbated the cultural anxiety of Egypt. “They [the Egyptians] were filled with loathing because of the Children of Israel” (Ex. 1:12).

The Torah is silent about the reactions of those who spoke up.  Their very silence opened the doors to further degradation, as Pharaoh initiated a stage two.  He commanded ‘midwives to the Hebrews’, Egyptian women with the names Shifra and Puah, to kill all male infants on the birthing stool as they are giving birth.[2]  This form of population control is particularly nefarious, as people are commanded to engage in infanticide under the cover of legal deniability, as it looked like the child died from the complications of birth. “The baby was not killed but rather was still-born and not viable.”  Infant mortality was common, and even Jewish women may not have been aware of the murder of their own children.[3]   While later Pharaoh will command all the people to murder Jewish boys, here the command is limited to certain sectors, mainly the inner palace and the midwives.

Here the response of the midwives is truly remarkable.   We are told that they feared God, Vatir’ena HamYaldot et HaElokim, and therefore refused to listen.  For those who argue these midwives are not Jewish, they point out that this verse simply means they believed in the Divine order, and that basic morality dictates one does not kill another human being.  The same name of God, Elokim, is invoked in the first chapter of Genesis, as each human being is created in God’s image, b’tzelem elokim.

When confronted by Pharaoh as to why  the midwives did not kill the infants, they engage in subterfuge.  They respond  that they did indeed try, but the Jewish women were ‘chayot’ and the children were already born by the time they arrived.  While the word chayot is difficult to translate, it probably means they are full of vitality and life, and therefore give birth quickly; it confirms the fact that God blessed them with fecundity.  The midrash associates it with the word chayot, animals, and the assumption is that like animals, they are vigorous and quickly give birth.  Alternatively, the word chayot could mean nurses, and the midwives state to Pharaoh the Jews already have midwives, and the child is already born by the time we arrive.  Whatever the meaning, the midwives are telling Pharaoh that they cannot stop the Jewish people from multiplying. The midwives, while professing to be following Pharaoh’s command, are in actuality using their very position to subvert Pharaoh’s goal.  However, it is clear to all that Pharaoh sees through this subterfuge.

While allegedly claiming allegiance to Pharaoh and his genocidal goals, in actuality they are directing a veiled message to Pharaoh.  The root of chayot, chayah – to give life, is invoked five times in the section.  God, elokim, gives life..  They too as midwives are also in the business of bringing life into the world.  Perhaps it is not that they simply feared God, but as midwives they more clearly than others saw the Divine miracle of birth itself and understood that God is the source of life and vitality.  As such, they have no right to take life, and to do so would be a perversion of their profession.  Pharaoh’s command  not only violated the moral order of the universe, but also the specific mission of a  profession mandated to bring forth life.  Many commentators assume that Shifra and Puah were actually the supervisors of all the midwives, and thus they also instructed all of under their authority to follow suit.  In other words, this was an act of supreme civil disobedience.

The text continues to attest that God viewed the actions of the midwives with favor.  According to the predominant reading, God rewarded them with ‘houses’.[4]  What this means is left uncertain.  Some commentaries opine that the word ‘house’ connotates families.  In other words, because the midwives protected the sacredness of the family, God in turn rewarded them with large, established, families of their own (see e.g. the translation of the Septuagint or Shadal 1:21).   Another reading argues that either God miraculously provided them safe houses to protect them, or the Jewish people provided them with houses.  They now needed protection from Pharaoh’s wrath.

However, the Torah simply states, “and he built them houses”, and the referent of the pronoun ‘he’ is unclear.  Some commentaries propose that Pharaoh built them houses;  it was not to reward them, but rather for them to be under constant surveillance- in other words, they were put into house arrest (see e.g. Rashbam ibid).  Indeed, there are times when those who stand up for truth suffer in unimaginable ways. Read this way, the sacrifice of the midwives is even more remarkable.

Whatever the correct reading of the story of the midwives, a more fundamental question presents itself.  Immediately following these events, Pharaoh simply commanded the entire people to throw every Jewish boy into the Nile; murder is now the law of the land.  The Children of Israel were so dehumanized that Pharaoh at this stage had the political capital to legislate murder, something he was unable to do in the episode with the midwives.  Given the sad progression of events, one might ask the question, “Did the sacrifice of the midwives make any difference at all?  The torture and the slavery only deepened following their heroic acts of sacrifice!”  Unlike the predictions of Fukuyama, history did not seem to be evolving, but devolving.

On the one hand their sacrifice, while clearly saving many individual lives, in fact did not change the immediate collective future.  Nonetheless, we might argue that they planted the seeds of civil disobedience, even in the heart of a regime defined in tyranny and terrorism.  Like many other warriors for justice and change, their examples live on in the next generation.

Not long after, we are alerted to the birth of a child, who is hidden from the genocidal plans of Pharaoh.  When he can no longer be hidden, he is set adrift in a basket covered in pitch into the Nile.  Of all people, the daughter of Pharaoh sees the basket while bathing with her maidens.  In full view of everyone, she draws the child from the Nile, and names him Moses, ki min hamayim mishiteehu, because I have drawn him from the Nile.  The future redeemer of the Jewish people is saved by the daughter of the very tyrant who would have him killed.  She does this in full view of others.  There is no other act of civil disobedience more brazen than this, and we can theorize that the contours of Moses’ character were very much influenced by his surrogate mother.  Ultimately, Moses will go with God into battle against Pharaoh, and liberate the Jewish people and also defeat the ideology that enabled such oppression.

Where did the daughter of Pharaoh get the strength to take such a subversive and dangerous action?  Could it be that she heard the stories of the midwives and held them close to her heart?  At the moment she saw the Hebrew child, her compassion was aroused, and remembered the dedication and sacrifice of the midwives.  She, like the midwives, felt compelled to bring forth life from the clutches of death, following in their footsteps.  In essence, the line between the disobedience of the midwives, the daughter of Pharaoh, and the emergence of the leader of Israel are three points on the journey towards redemption, individual people planting seeds for the future. Apparently actions, both small and large do make a difference, even if at the time they seem irrelevant.

Perhaps Fukuyama was only wrong in his timeframe, but not his ultimate analysis. Seeds are planted in history and germinate but may often take generations, even centuries,  to come to fruition.  Whatever we see around us is not the end of the story.  The actions of the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses himself teach that we can never be silent, for to be silent is to essentially affirm that human action is irrelevant.[5]

Tyrants, terrorists and autocrats are counting on this silence.  Let’s not give them their wish.  Not now, not ever.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] See Netziv, Emek Davar, Ex. 1:7.  However, see Shadal, 1:7 who argues they remained in Goshen.

[2] There is a rabbinic debate whether these women were Jewish midwives or they were Egyptian women tending to Jewish children.  (See Shadal 1:7 who brings both sides of the debate.)  In the former and predominant rabbinic reading, the two women are associated with Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister respectively.  This reading is a story about Jewish sacrifice and solidarity.  We will be reading the text according to the latter reading, that they were gentile women- a story of civil disobedience.  They are not Hebrew midwives, but midwives for the Hebrew women.

[3] Only later will Pharaoh directly command the people to engage in the murder of the Jewish boys through throwing them into the Nial, which incidentally is another form of legal deniability.   Sometimes a body would never be found at all, and if it were a claim could be made that the child drowned of his own accord.

[4] Again, here we will explain the text using the assumption that the midwives were not Jewish.

[5] See Sotah 11a and the responses of Bilaam, Job, and Yitro to Pharaohs decree.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Related Topics
Related Posts