Shifrah and Puah: Reflecting On Righteous Women On The Way To The March

By Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D.

The first act of civil disobedience appears in this week’s Torah portion. The opening of the Book of Exodus, which will be read tomorrow in synagogues in our nation’s capital and beyond, has lots to teach about quiet acts of grace that can transform the world.

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We learn in the opening verses that a new king has come to rule over Egypt “who did not know Joseph” (Ex. 1:8). Pharaoh, it would seem, knows only his own kind, and his people feel threatened by the fertile Israelites who now swarm across the land such that the Egyptians “came to dread them” (Ex. 1:12). In response, they enslave the Israelites, and the king orders the midwives to kill all male babies.

The midwives – named Shifrah and Puah – are not having any of it. “Fearing God,” the text says, “they let the boys live” (Ex. 1:17) Indeed, redemption came through the acts of Shifrah, whose name contains the Hebrew root meaning “fruitful” [פרה ], and Puah, whose name contains the Hebrew root meaning “murmur” [פעה] , the sweet coo that pacifies babies (Rashi’s commentary). In the gentlest of ways, these women stood up to save the most vulnerable creatures of their time.

On January 21, hundreds of thousands of us will stand up for the most vulnerable in our society today. Among the activities planned for the day-after-a new-leader-has-come-to-rule, Rabbi Sara Luria will chant scripture from a Torah that she plans to shlep from New York City to D.C. She will join 80 or so men and women on buses chartered by Auburn Seminary to transport folks to the Women’s March on Washington. Besides Rabbi Luria, we eagerly anticipate hearing from the spiritual midwives of our day, including Auburn Fellows, Rabbi Sharon Brous and Sister Simone Campbell, who will speak at the D.C. Rally (not to mention that our Fellow, Linda Sarsour, helped birth this march).

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The story of the king-who-did-not-know-Joseph ends with his death, even as the Israelites remain enslaved. According to the Book of Exodus, God hears their cries for help, and looks upon them, and, unlike their temporal king, knows them (Ex. 25). Would that we could all act in God’s ways, looking upon others and knowing them.

In the end, Jewish tradition claims that the Israelites were delivered from Egypt as a reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation (Sotah 11b).

Why not us, too?

Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Ph.D. is senior director of special projects at Auburn Seminary.


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