Grrrl-power badassery shines from the pages of our Torah this week! Although Parshah Sh’mot is usually defined by baby Moshe in a basket, a burning bush, and a debate with God, it also features possibly the first recorded act of civil disobedience in history. An act perpetrated by two women of courage, who with one small decision widened their influence from midwives to reproductive rights activists with mad birthing skills.
A new Pharaoh has ascended the throne, one unfamiliar with the history of the Israelites. By this point, their numbers have increased substantially and although their labor clearly benefits both the royal court and the Egyptian state, the Pharaoh finds their presence odious. In a severe, short-sighted and ultimately nonsensical attempt to rid them from the land, he calls upon Shifra and Puah. “The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah 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” (Exodus 1:15-17).
Deeply connected to the lives of Israelite women, Shifra and Puah have witnessed every aspect of reproductive life. They have bonded with women preparing for pregnancy, labor and delivery. They have ushered into the world beautiful, healthy babies. Shifra and Puah have deftly facilitated the grieving process for those who delivered children stillborn or lost their babies in miscarriage. They are frequently sought after for advice regarding infertility, child spacing, and any complications that might arise during and after pregnancy. When a girl reaches first menstruation, it is Shifra and Puah who counsel her on the magic of her body. Shifra and Puah, trained from their earliest years to guide their sisters through the unique and powerful journeys of their bodies, flatly reject Pharaoh’s order.
I’d love to know the conversation between Shifra and Puah immediately following their meeting with the Pharaoh. Did they plan their subversion in detail, evaluating different ruses to determine the most effective? Or did they simply laugh at the absurdity of the suggestion that any woman trained as they were would slaughter a child? Did they mutter riotously about the Egyptian control of every aspect of the Israelites’ lives? I personally enjoy envisioning a dialogue comparable to Rage Against the Machines’ “Killing in the Name,” but one of the wonderful things about Torah is that you can imagine this scenario however feels empowering to you.
Shifra and Puah play brilliantly on the Pharaoh’s racism towards their people when called to account for continuing male births. They tell the Pharaoh that, much like animals in the field, Israelite women give birth too quickly – a baby simply arrives before the midwives have a chance to do Pharaoh’s dirty work. Remarkably, he accepts their explanation. For their righteous actions, God rewards both midwives with families that manifest into dynasties and Pharaoh is left to find other solutions to his perceived problem.
Much discussion continues on the patriarchal tenor of our Torah. What makes our book a living document, however, is everything you and I bring to its reading. Show up to Torah study armed with whatever philosophy you like, and see what you find. Look for yourself in the Torah’s pages – both who you are and who you’d like to be. Ultimately, our sacred text is about people very much like you and me. What you get from it is largely determined by what you give to it.
Akiva Yael is a positive and enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting and the beauty of our world.