The civil disobedience of two unsung heroines


This week’s Torah portion is Shemot, Exodus 1:1–6:1.

The Torah is filled with well-known heroic figures. But what about the unsung heroes and heroines?

My favorites are encountered in the first chapter of Exodus. They are Shifra and Puah.

When a new king ascends to the throne of Egypt, he doesn’t recognize the contributions that the Israelites had previously made to his society. Instead he is threatened by their numbers and fears that they will be disloyal aliens who’ll work against his society from within. So he imposes a series of oppressive measures — mainly slavery — intended to inhibit the Israelites’ birth rate.

When these measures don’t work, Pharaoh speaks to Shifra and Puah, identified as Hebrew midwives. He tells them when they deliver Israelite children, they should kill the baby boys but allow the girls to live. Fearing God, however, they defy Pharaoh and allow the boys to live. When asked, the two women offer a plausible explanation for their disobedience: “The Hebrew women are vigorous; by the time we arrive, they’ve already delivered their children.”

It appears that they don’t incur any penalty from Pharaoh, and we learn that God rewards them.

Shifra and Puah engage in a classic act of civil disobedience. They know it is wrong to kill the Israelite babies and work to ensure they live. Like Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they “speak truth to power” with both courage and dignity. God’s reward makes their actions all the more sweet.

The midwives also demonstrate something more subtle: devotion to their profession. Without expecting reward and willing to risk being unpopular, they maintain a code of professional ethics.

I’m always reminded of this when I observe healthcare professionals, especially nursing aides and technicians. On the lowest rung of the professional ladder, they have the most direct contact with patients. Their jobs often are unpleasant, yet they dedicate themselves to their patients, and make sure they receive the best care.
I hope that my children and grandchildren will emulate Shifra and Puah. They are amazing heroines.

Questions for discussion

Is it right to disobey an immoral command? Have you ever faced a similar moral dilemma?

When you encounter dedicated healthcare workers, do you thank them and acknowledge what they do?

Who are today’s unsung heroes or heroines? How do they compare to Shifra and Puah?

Rabbi Jim Michaels is chaplain at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, in Rockville.

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