Double Mitzvah – Shemot

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Maya B. Alma. Maya B. Alma is Jewrotica’s new Double Mitzvah columnist!

Check out our recent column, Double Mitzvah – Vayechi.

Rated PG-13

A new book, a new story. We bid farewell to sefer Bereishit, the book of Genesis, and all of the stories surrounding our “first family” of Judaism. Our attention turns to sefer shemot, the book of Exodus, which tells of a nation, first enslaved, then set free. How are the books connected to each other? As our tradition has it, ma’aseh avot siman labanim — “the doings of the ancestors are omens for their children.” To put it another way: what happens on a smaller scale in Genesis 12-50, in the form of journeys into and out of Egypt, and a family’s growing awareness of divinity and destiny, comes back around on a much larger scale in the book of Exodus, as an entire people now makes the same journey.

It’s important to remember that big stories like Exodus are also the stories of individuals, and families. As if to underline this point, chapters one and two of Exodus tell the nation’s story of enslavement, first in a large-scale but somewhat impersonal way (chapter one) and then through the lens of one family (chapter two). Certainly, the text singles out the family of Amram, Yocheved, Aaron, Miriam and baby Moses in order to set up their extraordinary role as leaders of the people. But in hearing the story of one family, aren’t we meant to remember that the story of the enslavement of the Hebrews and the killing of the baby boys is really the story of one death, repeated again and again?

In these opening chapters, perhaps no characters are more personalized than Shifra and Pu’ah, the Hebrew midwives. Their story is brief, but powerful:

The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” And God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and increased greatly. And because the midwives feared God, God established households for them (Exod 1:15-21).

Our Torah paints these women as extraordinarily reverent of the divine (i.e., “God fearing”), and also as courageous. They stood up to Pharaoh in the midst of that campaign of infanticide and lied to his face, to preserve the lives of the Hebrews. Were those Hebrews connected to them in some way? The Midrash, and several commentators, coming out of a time when it was hard to imagine Gentiles behaving with such kindness and courage on behalf of Jews, identify the women as Hebrews (and specifically as Yocheved and Miriam). But it seems to me (and other commentators agree) that they must have been Egyptian. Pharaoh was enlisting them as soldiers in his cause, and entrusting them with the task of carrying out his policy. Would he have ever imagined that Hebrew women would have done such a thing? As I hear the story, Shifra and Puah were tzaddikot umot ha’olam, “Righteous Gentiles,” of a kind with those who risked their lives to save individuals and families in the Shoah.

During this week of transition, from the stories of a family to the stories of a People, let us be grateful for brave women like Shifra and Puah, and let us remember that even the story of a People is the story of people: men, women, children, each one worthy of gallons of ink and miles of parchment.

Jewrotica is a spankin' new project with the power to provide a voice for Jewish sexual expression and meaningful conversation. Jewrotica is an online community-in-the-making and a database of delicious and grin-inducing Jewish stories and confessions. Join us!