Parashat Shemot

by Rabbi Jill Hammer

“Just as they oppressed [the Hebrew people], so it increased and spread out…”

There is a fierce assertion at the beginning of the book of Exodus that the oppressed will not be stifled by oppression. In Exodus 1:12, we hear that as the Hebrews are forced into slave labor, they continue to increase. “Yirbeh,” the word for “it increased” refers to fertility: they bore children and became many. Yet I hear other echoes in “yirbeh.” In that word we find the word “rav,” master, and the implication of autonomy. “Yifrotz,” it spread out, can refer to the increase of a people, as when Avraham was told “ufaratzta,” you shall spread out. Yet “yifrotz” can also mean “it burst out,” as in Peretz, the child of Judah and Tamar, who “made a breach for himself” in coming out of Tamar’s womb. I hear in this verse the implication that long before Moses arrives to free the people, liberation has already begun. That the people have been enslaved does not mean that there is no resistance.

We know this because of Pharaoh’s frantic attempts to repress the people using every means at his disposal. And we know it because when Pharaoh attempts to co-opt two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, into his people-destroying machine, they refuse his request that they kill the male babies of the Hebrews. They do not refuse dramatically: there is no scene where they say “no” to Pharoah. They do, however, refuse effectively. When they attend the birthings of Hebrew women, they do not kill the male children. A midrash in Exodus Rabbah claims that they do the opposite, going out of their way to provide for the needs of the Hebrew women and their infants. When Pharaoh complains, they parrot his vile prejudices back to him. He can’t overcome their resistance because he can’t fathom it. He has no language for their commitment to the life and safety of the oppressed. Meanwhile, the subversion of his reign continues, and eventually even his daughter becomes an agent of rescue for the oppressed.

I think of how frightening it must have been for Shifrah and Puah to offer this secret yet public resistance each and every day, under the eyes of many who might have reported them. I think of how many people they must have needed to trust with their lives. What gave the midwives the strength to do this? Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, the Christian feminist theologian, suggests that the key trait of these liberators is yirah, reverence:

“Shifrah and Puah proved themselves to be the Handmaids of God rather than of Pharaoh. Although the king expected the midwives to identify with Egyptian national interests, they in fact identified themselves with the best interests of humankind as a whole, refusing to engage in acts of infanticide against minority children. Like Shifrah and Puah, sensuously spiritual people need to bear in mind that when we act in solidarity with other oppressed people, we act in reverence for God and on behalf of the best interests of everyone, the oppressors as well as the oppressed, even though the oppressors would probably not be able to recognize that fact.”
(Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism, p. 36)

Mollenkott defines reverence as acting on behalf of the best interests of all people, out of respect for the Creator who made them. Mollenkott does not define Shifrah and Puah’s actions as “against Pharaoh.” In acting out of reverence, these life protectors act for Pharaoh as well, because despite Pharaoh’s narrow calculations about his own self-interest, the murder of children and the oppression of enslaved people is in no one’s genuine self-interest.

Shifrah and Puah express their resistance and their reverence through action, not speech—at least not in their words to Pharaoh. Yet speech is going to be important for the liberation of the Hebrew people. At the burning bush, Moses will immediately recognize this and worry about his own ability, saying: “Please, God, I have never been a man of words…” We have a hint of how important speech is going to be in the names of the midwives. “Shifrah” means “beauty” and “Puah” means “sound” or “utterance.” The making of powerful words is going to be an important liberation enterprise for the Hebrew people, who are defined by Moses’ echoing phrase: “Let my people go.”

In her commentary on the mdiwives, Mollenkott expounds on the necessity of words: “Puah means “utterance.” Utterance is always an important word for oppressed people, because in a very real sense utterance (expression) is the exact opposite of depression…. One thing is sure: we cannot liberate ourselves in isolation, and certainly we cannot make a just society in isolation.” Words are necessary to connect us to one another: to make our acts of resistance known rather than secret.

As we remember the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who gifted us with so many powerful words of liberation, and who joined so many people together in reverence, may we follow in the footsteps of Shifrah and Puah and discover how to resist oppression at every opportunity. May we, like Shifrah and Puah, find partners in that work. Like Moses, may we find the words to express our reverence for the Creator and all creation.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.