Rabbi David Segal
January 4, 2013
In this scene, we witness a moment of great courage. Shifrah and Puah disobey Pharaoh's cruel order. In the history of genocide, we hear too often about decent people, bystanders, who just follow orders. But here we have an ancient example of civil disobedience, a refusal to participate in a murderous decree.
This scene is also a moment of great ambiguity. M’yaldot ha-ivriot means either "Hebrew midwives" or, possibly, "midwives of the Hebrew women." So Shifrah and Puah are either Israelite women fighting for their people, or Egyptian women -- "who feared God" -- standing up for the Other.
Not surprisingly, voices of our tradition support both interpretations. Rashi, following the Talmud, considers them Israelite women, even naming them as Yocheved and Miriam. Abravanel and others as far back as Josephus consider them Egyptian midwives. Shadal supported that interpretation thus:
“How is it conceivable that Pharaoh would order Jewish women to kill their own folk and imagine they would not divulge the whole plan?”Also, the text mentions an important detail: the midwives "feared God" (Elohim). Why state that fact if they were Jewish women? They'd be expected, in that case, to look out for their own people. But for Egyptian women to look out for Hebrew children required a belief in something higher.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, speaks of this episode:
We do not know to which people [the midwives] belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a "crime against humanity," and they refused to do so. . . . All we know about them is that they "feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded." In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.
* * *
Last month I took a group of high school students to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. I thought about that experience as I read about Shifrah and Puah this week. What is always so moving to me, for some reason, are the stories of the righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews, motivated by something that transcends ethnic and familial ties.
That museum explicitly connects the Holocaust to modern-day genocides, and the message is clear: we all must learn the lesson “never again” to work to stop genocide in our time, whether against our own people or our fellow human beings.
Yad VaShem, the Israeli Shoah museum in Jerusalem, sends a different message. As you pass by the displays about Nazi evils and Jewish resistance, you come out of the relative darkness of the museum to the light of the Jerusalem sun, and a panoramic view of the surrounding hills. There the message is also “never again,” but with a profoundly different interpretation:
because of Israel, “never again” will another people victimize Jews the way they did during the Shoah. “Never again” will we Jews allow ourselves to be defenseless and stateless in the face of our persecutors.
There is growing tension today between these two versions of “never again” -- Jews who emphasize group preservation versus Jews who emphasize universal human rights, going head to head over which is the more Jewish way. As the old joke goes, the most Jewish approach is probably to have these two groups arguing with each other.
The truth is, neither approach is authentic without the other. A story:
Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service, was speaking at a synagogue about her organization’s work in the developing world, much of which benefits non-Jews, especially in Africa. During the Q&A, as often happens, a man in the audience criticized her for devoting resources and attention to non-Jews when so many Jews are in need. Before she could answer, a diminutive older woman got out of her seat and marched over to the man. She shook her fist at him and said:
I am a Jew, and a Holocaust survivor. It is because of people like you that my entire family was murdered in the camps.
At that point, Ruth Messinger didn’t need to say much more.
That ethos of “take care of our own” -- a natural and healthy sentiment that leads to protection of one’s family and group -- can also be twisted into a rationalization for ignoring the suffering of others. How often do we bemoan the fact that so many otherwise decent Germans turned a blind eye to what their countrymen were doing to their Jewish friends and neighbors? In order not to be hypocrites, don’t we also need to remember to direct our moral attention to those who are “other” to us, just as we wish others had done, and will do, for us?
On the flip side of the coin, the universalist attitude of looking beyond our own familial and ethnic boundaries can, if taken to a superficial extreme, lead us to neglect our own while pursuing the very noble cause of reaching out to the other. It can lead us to forget that the place where we learn those universal values that reach beyond ethnic boundaries, is the very family and community that those values teach us to transcend.
The Jewish way is to embrace that ambiguity, that duality. Jewish wisdom teaches us that we are to live for ourselves and for others. Either side of that equation alone would diminish us, would weaken our impact on the world, would be less than the fulfillment of both our humanity and our Jewish identity.
As Rabbi Hillel so famously said,
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
Many thanks to Lisa Exler for the inspiration behind this d'var Torah, and several of the sources as well, including the essay by Rabbi Sacks.