This week we meet Shifra and Puah – Hebrew midwives who employ a crafty tactic for the defiance of Pharoah. Pharoah demands that they kill every male child. The text tells us they fear God, blatantly defy the command and kill no children. What is so strategic about their approach is that they don''t simply refuse Pharoah to his face. They knew that that path, honorable as it may be, would have only led to their own death and Pharoah''s chosing someone else to enact his murderous plans. So they pretend to follow orders; pacifying Pharoah, protecting themselves and saving the children in the process. When Pharoah calls them back to ask why they have disobeyed him they plead powerless, saying that the Hebrew women are lively and deliver the children before their arrival. Pharoah apparently believes them and retains their services. It seems that these plucky midwives have simply talked their way out of trouble. 

Perhaps its no coincidence then that Puah''s name, according to Rashi, comes from her keen ability to speak – most specifically, to speak to and pacify crying babies. She is a baby whisperer – one able to speak to those who themselves are in-fant – unable to speak. Puah, with her inherent ability to communicate with and calm children, stands as an archetypal force of what creates a tranquil home. It is no wonder then that in reward for their defiance, the text tells us that God rewards the midwives with houses. These gift houses, as enigmatic as they may be, make perfect symbolic sense. For midwives are essentially symbols for not just the technical birthing of a child, but the entire sphere of actions and intentions that usher in and house new life.

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Midrash Hagadol illustrates this idea beautifully in its weaving of a story of Pharoah sending guards to capture the delinquent midwives. It says that God saves the women by turning them into the beams of a home. The guards search the house to no avail, for Shifra and Puah have become embedded in the house itself. The are the beams, the fortifying forces that uphold the entire structure.

The midwives thus embody the home and all that it symbolizes – family, inter-relatedness, communication, and internality. For our homes are the internal speres from which we impact the outer world. Indeed, in this episode, these internally-oriented women are called upon by Pharoah himself to become players in the external arena of power and politics. They rise to the task and become social activists on the national scene. Their act of defiance impacts the entire people, and allows for the very birthing of Moses and Aaron. They are the abolitionists that enable the redemption of an entire people and the righting of a massive social wrong.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs points out so eloquently their story is “the first recorded instance of civil disobedience...(setting a precedent) that would eventually become the basis for the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.” History''s proud line of  social activists and conscientious objectors can trace their source back to these righteous midwives stand against the powers that be.

In the poem below, Puah herself calls for a redefinition of what it means to be a freedom fighter. She reframes agitating for social justice in more internal terms. She is an activist who does not so much take to the streets, as she takes to the kitchen sink, maintaining that all great battles for justice have their locus in the living room.

Puah

Like freedom fighters
who pray with their feet
I protest for inner-peace

though paraplegic in comparison
to prodigious heels
of powerful men

my prayerful wheels
spin tales of inner-freedom
and entone hymns of mindful treatment
of children and kin

I commit to calm the din of crying infants
with the easy clicking of my teeth
I speak for those who do not yet know how to speak

My freedom fighting is not political
that task is for a hardier class
of jewish girl

for me - the Egyptian fiend
is personal

for the Pharoahs I dethrone
rule the halls of each of our homes

in the inner-alcoves of a private despair
that petrifies the children
and paralizes the parents
that inprisons our finest hours
of family commitment and contentment

I prefer to peddle wares
of wars-well-avoided
where everyone wins
through carefully worded
apologies and the timely
airing of grievances
between friends

for cowering beneath the pyramids
of needs – my fiends
are the menacing insecurities of adolescents
and the lethal bickerings of parents
- the noisome whines of needy toddlers
and the all-too-common-household-hollers
that oppress our most precious commodities
of family

my enemies crouch quietly beneath
the crumbs on the living room carpet
a beast between the sheets
of a cold-shouldered bedroom
where partners sleep
unconscious
and deeply out of tune
with the exquisit call
of their common dreams

I come to loosen the shackled lips
of fathers and mothers
that they may better utter
their astounded praise
at the miracle of a house full
of filthy shoes, spilled soup
and their children''s most innocent mistakes

My task is to counter the
armor-clad offensive
against love and friendship
- to incite a protest against
the enslavement of a trillion
inner prophets of tranquility
whose gentle-tongued souls
are daily buried beneath
straw burdens of poor comunication
and tossed out with the trashed
afternoons of a mother''s
epic impatience

I come to play the Moses of relational redemption
in the face of a sink-full of grimy resentments

And so I call forth all fellow
freedom fighters for inner-transformation
midwives with wise hands
toting torahs, toting infants, toting pens
all prayer-footed-protesters
come & herald in
emotional freedom from the pharonic foe
and let us birth our children
into peaceable homes

for when our houses enshrine tranquility
then outer-world will follow inner-lead

and rock-hard hearts
will soften grips
and all thats enslaved
will lithly slip
into the soft of freedom found
and take your shoes off
to walk around
for our houses are the
hallowed ground
from which God speaks

So call me Puah,
who quiets the cries
of children, slaves
and the Pharoahs
inside.

 

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