"The King of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives [or to the Egyptian midwives of
the Hebrew women] … When you deliver the Hebrew women and you see them on the
birth stool, if it is a son, you are to kill him, and if it is a daughter, she
shall live. But the midwives feared God and they did not do as the king of Egypt
spoke to them, and they allowed the male babies to remain alive." (Exodus
When Pharaoh decided to perpetrate genocide against the Jews, he ordered the
midwives to kill every male baby born to a Hebrew mother.
and Puah, the Egyptian midwives of the Hebrew women (or Jochebed and Miriam, who
actually were Moses’ mother and sister, and given nicknames relating to their
midwifery) refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders – because they “feared” God, and
preferred God’s law of “thou shalt not murder” to Pharaoh’s decree of genocide
against the Hebrews.
Indeed, the entire story of our Egyptian experience
is fraught with instances of courageous individuals – Egyptians and Hebrews
alike – whose fealty to a higher moral authority gave them the fortitude to risk
their own lives by refusing to carry out Pharaoh’s orders so as to prevent
genocide of the Hebrews.
Even if the national identity of Shiphrah and
Puah is open to interpretation, Pharaoh’s daughter is certainly a classic
example of the gentile who puts her life on the line “refusing to follow orders”
to save a Hebrew baby.
To understand this outstanding instance of a
righteous gentile whose rebellion against tyranny enabled not only the Hebrews
but also the Torah to develop and flourish, let us examine a few verses of our
reading in accordance with the interpretation of the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi
Yehuda Berlin, dean of Volozhin Yeshiva, 19th-century Lithuania).
to save her baby brother Moses from the Egyptians who were under orders to cast
any Hebrew baby they saw in the Nile (Exodus 1: 22), Miriam places him in a
basket hidden along the banks of the river.
Pharaoh’s own daughter,
Bitya, comes down to bathe in the river; her retinue of women departs to the
river’s edge to allow their mistress a measure of privacy.
spies the wicker basket hidden among the reeds, she even sends away her
trustiest maidservant, who generally never left her side. She retrieves the
basket, and as she suspected, finds a Hebrew baby. Miriam, waiting
nearby, offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for him.
According to the
Netziv, the text then states that the child grew up, and was brought to Bitya;
she called him Moses, and Bitya justified her right to adopt him since she had
drawn him out from the river where his parents had left him and brought him up
as her own, risking her life by refusing to follow her father’s
From Bitya’s perspective, this act of courage was tantamount to a
biological mother shedding blood and risking her life to bring her baby into the
It is not by accident that it is Moses, brought up by Bitya in
Pharaoh’s court, who rebelled against Pharaoh and killed an Egyptian
task-master. His model for his refusal to follow orders was none other than his
Egyptian mother, Bitya.
During the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war
criminals (1945-46), the major line of defense used by the Nazi defendants was
that a soldier cannot be held accountable for actions which were ordered by a
superior officer. Even if this argument was not always sufficient for
exoneration, it was certainly deemed sufficient for lessening the punishment.
Ultimately, Nuremberg Principle IV concluded that “the fact that a person acted
pursuant to the order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him
from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact
possible to him.” In other words, if he would be severely punished or murdered
for refusing to obey an order to commit genocide, he would not be
How different is the talmudic position of 2,000 years ago! “If
a gentile tells you to kill X or he will kill you, you must allow yourself to be
killed, for who says that your blood is redder than his?” (B.T. Sanhedrin 74a).
For Jewish law, Bitya the daughter of Pharaoh and Moses the Master Prophet led
Israeli law was established by the Kafr Kasim Massacre Judgment
(1957), which ruled that a soldier is not obligated to examine the legality of
each military order but must refuse a specific order that is “blatantly illegal,
so illegal that it is as if above it flies a black flag declaring ‘prohibited,’”
in the words of Judge Benjamin Halevy.
I believe that every soldier must
give priority to God’s law over human law, even the law of the
However, refusing to carry out a command of the IDF must only apply
when the individual believes that by carrying out the order an innocent Jewish
or gentile life is being taken, or that fundamental human rights are being
removed. In the instance of giving land for peace, however, Rabbi J.B.
Soloveitchik ruled that the elected government of Israel has the right to decide
whether sacrificing land for peace is operable and under which conditions. Such
a decision must be governmental and not individual.
writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate
programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.