Sh’mot greets us the Shabbat with the beginning of the drama that is the Exodus. The name of the portion, means “names” and immediately we are met with the change in status of the Hebrews as a new Pharaoh came to power who knew not Joseph and, as a result in the change in leadership, Egyptian society was turned on its head and the Hebrews lost status and became enslaved. (You may remember this from the opening of the Seder ritual as Passover.
The heroes of this passage of Torah turn out to be two perhaps unlikely women. Shifra and Puah, who were midwives to the Hebrew women. There are strands of interpretation that have these two women actually being Hebrew midwives (see Rashi). These two women are given the task by Pharaoh of destroying the male children of Hebrews. (Exodus 1:15f) Their refuel to follow orders, and as a result, allowing for the birth of Moses, becomes, as one scholar notes, “the first recorded instance in history of civil disobedience”. Even if you do not take the story literally, the symbolism here is powerful. Every once in a while, it takes ordinary people stepping up to follow a moral compass. Jonathan Saks in his “Essays on Ethics” remarks that the actions of these two women are a lesson for “They do what they do because that is what a human being is supposed to do. That is probably the meaning of the statement that they ‘feared God’. It is the Torah’s generic description of those who have a moral compass.” (p.80)
I suggest that this passage can be seen as having even greater meaning for us today. As we reflect on the challenges and joys of our own life’s journey, we can look back on those people, often appearing as random encounters, who influenced us by their ability to speak and act from a position of ethics and morality. They are often lost or forgotten in the rush of life and the crush of history, but, like Shifra and Puah, they change lives and history.
Rabbi Richard F Address