2016-04-27 / Religion Column

Biblical heroism has echoes in the Holocaust and today

Kellman Brown Academy

When discussing the exodus story at our seder, the passage about the midwives, Shifra and Puah, merits special attention. Indeed, theirs is a story of courage and heroism. According to Sh’mot (Exodus), these midwives saved Israelite newborns from being drowned, despite direct orders from Pharaoh, even going so far as to lie to his face in order to justify their behavior. Today it is impossible to hear the story without bringing to mind the righteous among the nations who sheltered Jews during the Shoah, and by extension, the imperative to aid those who face threats in present times. Shifra and Puah were certainly archetypes of such heroism and righteousness.

Because their nationality is not clearly stated, commentators have debated the identity of these women. The text refers to them as “miyaldot ha-Ivriyot,” which could be read, “the Hebrew midwives,” or “the midwives of the Hebrews.” The Talmud identified the midwives as Yocheved and Miriam (Moshe’s mother and sister), indicating that the midwives used pseudonyms but were indeed Jewish. Rashi, Ramban, and others concur with this assessment of the midwives’ Jewish identity.

S’forno, by contrast, asserts that Shifra and Puah were in fact Egyptian. A thousand years earlier, Josephus advanced this reading in his work, Antiquities of the Jews, relating the story as follows: “the king ordered that every male child be destroyed, and the labors of Hebrew women be observed by the Egyptian midwives, for they were compatriots of the king and not likely to transgress his orders.”

Each tradition has a striking implication. The first interpretation is noteworthy because of the implication of Pharaoh’s order—namely, asking Israelites to commit murderous acts against their own people. What stands out about S’forno’s interpretation, on the other hand, is the response, namely that the non- Jewish midwives were prepared to risk their lives to save children who were part of a minority group, whose religion and culture were different from their own.

Scholars often note that biblical interpretation is shaped by the commentators’ milieu. Perhaps Rashi, living during the Crusades, could not imagine that non-Israelites would stand up to Pharaoh. S’forno, by contrast, reflects his own circumstances. Living in Italy during the time of the Renaissance, he seemingly had no trouble believing that gentiles would risk their lives on Jews’ behalf.

Manifestations of both readings can be found in recent history. The “modern Pharaoh” of Nazi Germany forced Jewish inmates and kapos to perform terrible acts upon their own people. Like slaves in Egypt, Europe’s Jews faced unspeakable terror and tragedy. But the camps gave rise also to redemptive acts of resistance—both physical and spiritual—and to heroism, both by Jews and by their neighbors.

According to the text in Sh’mot, the midwives were rewarded for their actions: “God did good for the midwives, and the people increased…”

What exactly was the “good” that God did for them? The commentary Oznayim LaTorah suggests that “the reward for performing God’s will is the act itself.” The midwives saw their actions result in the surviving and thriving of children—what reward could be greater?

The week of Pesach is followed by Yom Hashoah, reminding us that redemption is not yet complete. The memories of those who were lost declare that we have more work to do; and the story of Shifra and Puah, who took risks to save others without thought of reward, serves as a paradigm to emulate in today’s unredeemed world. .

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