This week we meet Shifra and Puah – the Hebrew midwives who stand in defiance of Pharoah. Pharoah demands that they kill every male child born. They realize that were they to refuse Pharoah to his face not only would they themselves lose their lives, but he would find someone else to do his murderous bidding. Thus, they pretend to follow order, all the while saving the babies lives. 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. It seems that these plucky midwives have simply talked their way out of trouble.
Perhaps it''s 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 work is that of birthing through and sustaining households full of new lives.
Midrash Hagadol tells an illustrative 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. They are the beams, the fortifying forces that uphold the entire structure.
The midwives thus embody the home and all that it symbolizes – family, communication, and internality. For our homes are the internal spheres 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. 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.” Histories 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.
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 intone 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
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