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Shifra and Pua: Heroines of the Exodus

Posted on January 14, 2020

By Rabbi Alex Freedman

Be kind to the stranger: they may grow up to change the world, or at least yours.

If courage had a hall of fame, Shifra and Pua would stand at its entrance. These two women star in Parashat Shmot, this week’s Parsha that begins the saga of the Exodus. These two women are largely unknown, which is a shame. For their example continues to lead us.

Shifra and Pua are the Hebrew midwives charged with delivering the Israelite babies. Pharaoh commands them to kill the baby boys but let the girls live. The Torah continues, “The midwives feared G-d and did not do as the King of Egypt instructed. They let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17).  

When Pharoah saw Jewish babies being born, he confronted Shifra and Pua. “How could you let them live?” he cried out. They replied, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are vigorous. Before the midwife can reach them, they’ve given birth.” 

Their act of bravery is the first recorded act of civil disobedience, so timely in the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Are these remarkable women Jewish? I don’t believe so. “Hebrew midwives” can mean midwives for the Hebrews. Why would Pharaoh ever expect a Jewish woman to murder Jewish babies? Instead they are two Egyptian women who fear G-d more than Pharaoh, who refuse to take part in a crime against humanity. Shifra and Pua see the stranger as themselves and are thus worth saving. Who knows who these innocent babies might grow up to be? 

We do. Moses was one of them. Moses, whose people would one day create in the state of Israel a Tel Aviv maternity hospital at the intersection of Shifra and Pua Streets.

There’s an inspiring story in my favorite Haggadah, called A Different Night. It goes like this: 

“One Sunday morning in 1941 in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, a mysterious character rode up on his bicycle and entered the Calvinist Church. He ascended the podium and read aloud the story of the midwives who saved the Hebrew babies and defied Pharaoh’s policy of genocide. “Who is today’s Pharaoh?” he asked. 

“Hitler,” the congregation replied. 

“Who are today’s Hebrew babies?” 

“The Jews.” 

“Who will be today’s midwives?” 

He left the church, leaving his question hanging in the air. 

During the war seven families from this little church hid Jews and other resisters of the Nazis.”

Shifra and Pua inspired these families to see the stranger as an insider, not an outsider. They changed the world for these families. 

This time we read the Exodus story, let us not only condemn Pharaoh but also praise his midwives for their unmatched bravery. The Exodus experience reveals humanity at its lowest point and at its highest.