Shmot: Agitating for inner-peace

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


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 paralyzes the parents

that imprisons our finest hours

of family commitment and contentment


I prefer to pedal 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


and deeply out of tune

with the exquisite call

of their common dreams


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 communication

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 that''s enslaved

will lithely slip

into the soft of freedom found

and take our shoes your 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 Pharoah