Righteous women

Righteous women

The Talmud, in Sotah, teaches that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt because of the righteous women of that generation. Who were those women? Five figure prominently in our parsha, which begins the story of Moses and how he led the Israelites for 40 years and their transformation from a ragged collection of freed slaves to a people dedicated to God and God’s Torah.

You know the story. Seeing the Israelite slaves as a potential threat to his power, Pharaoh determines to destroy them — or their potential for rebellion — by ordering the death of all newborn Hebrew males.

When Moses is born, his mother, Yocheved, hides him as long as she can, then places him in a basket by the bank of the Nile, hoping some kind-hearted Egyptian might find the baby and allow him to live. That Egyptian turns out to be Pharaoh’s daughter. She discovers Moses and realizes he is a Hebrew baby but defies her father’s decree and adopts him. Moses’ sister Miriam, sent by her mother to watch over her brother in the basket, approaches the princess and offers to find a Hebrew wet-nurse. The princess agrees and Moses is returned to his mother until he is weaned. At that point, the toddler is brought to his adoptive mother, who raises him in the king’s palace, where he acquires the knowledge and skills he will later use to lead his people.

These three women — Yocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter — saved Moses. But perhaps even more important are the midwives. Pharaoh’s initial plan was to have others carry out his dirty work by turning midwives into murderers. He summoned the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah and ordered them to kill all the boys at the moment of delivery, but allow the girl babies to live. But, the Torah says, “the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.”

Who were these midwives? The Torah calls them ham’yaldot ha’ivriyot, the Hebrew midwives, but were they Israelites, midwives who were Hebrews, or Egyptians who tended to the Hebrew women?

The Talmud, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra, among others, hold that they were Israelites, but there is an equally old tradition that insists they were Egyptians. After all, Pharaoh could hardly expect that Israelite women would kill the children of their own people and keep it a secret.

Moreover, as later commentators point out, the Torah says that the midwives feared God — something that would be taken for granted if they were Israelites, but would be noteworthy if they were Egyptians.

Shifra and Puah, the midwives of the Hebrew women, defied the absolute monarch of all Egypt because they believed that Pharaoh’s order was wrong in the sight of God. Even though they knew that Pharaoh would punish their actions, they refused to become murderers.

The Torah tells us this story to teach us that heroes can be found in the most unlikely places. Anyone — that is, everyone — can choose to do the right thing, even if it is difficult. If we learn that lesson, in time we will build a world in which the fact that people choose to do the right thing will no longer be newsworthy.

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