Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            As the presidential primary season heats up here in the US, there is more and more debate concerning Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice.  This remains one of the defining issues of the American political landscape.  It is remarkable how many American voters wouldn't vote for a candidate who is on the other side of the abortion controversy.  It has become a deal breaker.   However, this week's parsha presents the most radical program of population control ever devised (besides Jonathan Swift's satiric A Modest Proposal).  Pharaoh instructs the obstetric professionals of Egypt to just kill all the unwanted babies (namely, male Jews) at the moment of birth.  Apparently Pharaoh didn't consider this too hard, because the babies are pretty frail at this moment, and people wouldn't notice.  This extreme measure was actually his second demographic control effort.  Initially, he believed enslaving the Jews would cut their numbers.  That initiative was doomed from the outset, because slave populations for some reason grow faster than free populations.  Eventually, Pharaoh enlists the man on the street to snatch and drown all Jewish male live births.  Ultimately all three efforts fail.  Even though some babies are murdered, the Jewish demographic problem continues to haunt Egypt.  Our normal view of Pharaoh is that he was an absolute ruler with assumed divine powers, so, how did he fail so miserably in this project?

            It would appear that he failed because of a coalition of female forces.  I would like to think that the midwives refused to participate in this heinous deed, because of their dedication to this life giving profession.  However, I have a strong suspicion that it was their spiritual, feminine side which induced this brave act.  The verse relates that they saved the babies because they feared God (Exodus 1:17), rather than had professional scruples.  Also, we have more examples of women saving communities in our Bible (Judges 9:53 and II Samuel 20:15-22).  But the greatest reason that I think their behavior was gender based is the continuation of the story. 

            Before I make my case, allow me, dear reader, a short digression.  Who were these midwives?  The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, claims that these women named Shifra and Puah were really Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe's mother and sister respectively.  The Midrash often tries to combine Biblical characters.  I think this was to cut down on production costs for any plays, movies or television series based upon these events.  Most of the literalist interpreters of the text (like the Abarbanel and Rabbi Shmuel David Luzatto) disagree and claim that these were Egyptian health care professionals.  This makes sense for a number of reasons.  First how reasonable would it be for Pharaoh to expect the Jewish midwives to kill Jewish children?  Secondly, Miriam would be about four years old, and, therefore, still in medical school kindergarten.  Finally, it fits in with the point I want to make.

            Now we can go back to the story.  When Pharaoh's secret plot to kill the Jewish boys fails because of the moral strength of the midwives, he inaugurates a public initiative for his entire people (1:22) to throw every Jewish male baby into the Nile.  This program also fails, because Moshe survives and the Jewish nation continues to grow. What's fascinating is that this program also fails because of a coalition of women.  When the baby to become Moshe is born, Yocheved, his mother, hides him, but this is only a temporary measure.  Eventually, the baby is ironically saved in the Nile, that vehicle of execution for the other babies.  Now comes the most remarkable development.  In a well known episode, the baby is found by Pharaoh's daughter and she together with her ladies in waiting saves and adopts the clearly Hebrew and male baby.  What I find fascinating is that no one is identified by name in this entire narrative.  All of these brave women are identified generically by their position in society.  We have a mother, sister, daughter and maids.  Yocheved isn't identified by name until four chapters later, Miriam isn't named until thirteen chapters later, and the daughter of Pharaoh is never named.  Why is this true?  I think the point is that these wonderful people acted in this brave manner because of the fact that they were mothers, sisters and daughters.  I believe further that this behavior was probably not unique to this incident, because the maids jump to help, not one seems interested in reporting the incident to Pharaoh's forces. 

            Long before the Nuremburg trials established that certain orders are too immoral to be carried out, the women of Egypt, both Jewish and gentile, intuitively understood that principle.  When Pharaoh gives his horrible order to the entire nation, the women apparently decided that they wouldn't participate.  I don't know how widespread the non-compliance was, but ultimately this initiative just goes away, another failed political program.  But it fails because of the moral fiber of the women of Egypt.

            I have always felt that it's extremely important that there are so many female role models in our Bible.  They provide the paradigms for our daughters to emulate.  However, it's also critical to identify more general behavior consistent with tendencies within the genders.  Then we can make value judgments praising or criticizing, and, more importantly, encourage or discourage those acts.  Here, I firmly believe, we must push everyone to copy this pattern of compassion and benevolence first exhibited by the women in Egypt

            Laws in any society are often written based upon policy goals, without regard to the ethics or morality of the legislation.  Governments don't have consciences.  People do.  We are required to follow the laws of the land to the extent that these laws are moral.  The important concept of civil disobedience wasn't invented by Henry David Thoreau, but by the women of Egypt, and even Pharaoh had to heed their moral outrage. 



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