At the beginning of 2011, while protests were happening in Egypt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a joke did the rounds, which claimed that the Jews had warned the Egyptians that they would refuse to rebuild the pyramids if they got destroyed by the violent protests which swept through the country. This joke may be related back to this week’s Torah portion in which we read that as the Israelites became numerous Pharaoh began to persecute them, and ‘they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses’ (Exodus 1:11).
This week we begin the book of Shemot, also known as Exodus, and the first of half of the Book as a whole focuses on the persecution of the Israelites by Pharaoh and the Egyptians, with their eventual escape from slavery to freedom. Pharaoh and the Egyptians are the bad guys at the start of this book. He worried that as the Israelites continued to multiply one day they could be a fifth column joining the enemies of Egypt in a future war. And so he responded by making ‘their lives bitter with hard slavery, in mortar, and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field; all their service, which they made them serve, was with rigor’ (Exodus 1:14).
And yet at almost the very beginning of the book we get a short little story, which can challenge our assumptions about the Egyptians.
Having failed to check the growth of the Israelites through hard labor, we read that ‘the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, and the name of one was Shifrah, and the name of the other Puah’ (Exodus 1:15). Pharaoh told them that when they were helping the Israelite women during their labor if they gave birth to ‘a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live’ (Exodus 1:16). The ultimate ruler of Egypt, a man considered to be a god, gave Shifrah and Puah a direct instruction and yet we then read: ‘the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the male children alive’ (Exodus 1:17). They even lied to Pharaoh to defend their actions.
In studying this story, the commentators have been primarily concerned by the identity of Shifra and Puah; were they Israelites or were they Egyptians who served the Hebrew community. In reading the text it seems unlikely that they were members of the Israelite community. For one, it is hard to believe that Pharaoh expected Israelites to kill members of their own people. But in terms of the text the statement that ‘the midwives feared God’ seems superfluous if they were members of the Hebrew community, but highly relevant if they were Egyptians rebelling against their Pharaoh.
Shifrah and Puah provide us with the first example of civil disobedience, but more importantly they demonstrate that not all of the Egyptians were necessarily evil and wicked. As we read the first half of the book of Shemot it is easy to negatively characterize all of the Egyptian people, but Shifrah and Puah show that this was not true of everyone, they call on us to be more nuanced in our view of the Egyptians. And they set a secondary example as the first righteous gentiles, risking their own lives to save others.
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