Torah for the Times

Friday, January 13, 2012 - 18 Teves, 5772

Torah Reading: Shemot (Exodus 1:1 -6:1)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:32 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:36 PM


Pharaoh and the Midwives

Our parshah tells us that after Pharaoh saw the incredible growth of the Jewish people in Egypt, he conspired to reduce their numbers. His first strategy was to oppress them with back-breaking, slave labor. When that did not stunt their explosive growth he went to plan B. The Torah, in this week’s parsha, then recounts how he attempted to get the Hebrew midwives to kill the newly born males. The two midwives—Shifrah and Puah—defied Pharaoh and let the targeted babies live.

This story is replete with anomalies.

First, why did Pharaoh choose to murder specifically the male children? If his goal was to enslave the Jewish people he would have fared better to kill the females, which would prevent further births, and compel the males to become his slaves.

Second, why did Pharaoh ask the Hebrew midwives to murder the Jewish babies? He could have sent in his own soldiers to carry out his bidding, which, indeed, he eventually resorted to when he decreed that all the male children be thrown into the Nile.

Third, when the Torah introduces the story of Pharaoh and the Hebrew midwives it repeats the words “he said”: “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. He said, ‘When you help the Hebrew women give birth, and you look on the birth stool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.’" Why the redundancy?

Fourth, according to the Talmud, these two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, were actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moses’ mother and sister, respectively. Why does the Torah go out of its way to emphasize these “nicknames” rather than to state their real names?

The Model for Future Redemption

To answer all these questions it must be borne in mind that the Egyptian bondage and the Exodus are recounted to help us deal with our own exile situation and to teach us the dynamics of exile and Redemption.

Pharaoh, the physical monarch, also represents the power vested in exile which does everything in its power to keep us ensconced in this exile mindset. To keep us in the exile mode, the Pharaohs of our history initially believed persecution would suffice. Our enemies always tried to distract us from our spiritual pursuits by forcing us to concentrate on basic survival.

In Chassidic thought this approach is referred to as the “turbulent waters.” These “waters” refer to all of the hurdles life brings us, even if we don’t face literal pharaohs, which threaten to engulf us and extinguish our passion for G‑d and for our need to extricate ourselves from exile.

Flourishing in Exile

This approach failed miserably. Despite all of his efforts to subjugate the Jewish people and thereby decrease their numbers and their prospects to ever emerge from Egypt, Pharaoh realized that these people have an uncanny ability to flourish in times of persecution. The more they are oppressed the more they can elicit hidden powers that enable them to survive and even thrive.

In the modern day context, the distractions that come from our need to survive economically are not enough to crush us. In the words of King Solomon, as explained in Chassidic thought, “The turbulent waters cannot extinguish the love.” On the contrary, these pressures elicit even deeper soul powers and passion for G‑d which empower us to endure and to grow.

When Pharaoh sees that we can flourish in exile, and that we can exercise control over exile and then subsequently break out of its mold, he has to come up with a new and “creative” idea to strengthen the grip of exile over us.

Pharaoh’s mind finally recognizes that there must be some external force that assists us in persevering and flourishing. If he could tap into this force and harness it for his own nefarious objectives he would finally succeed in aborting the nascent process of Redemption.

Enlisting the Power of Redemption to Keep us in Exile!

Pharaoh’s ingenious and diabolical plan thus was to enlist the power of Redemption itself as an agent in continuing and deepening the exile.

What is the power of Redemption and where is it vested? Redemption is the power to resist. Redemption is the power to rebel against any and every power that tells us what to do. It is not so much the form of rebellion where one demonstrates in public but rather an inner fortitude that is impervious to all outside influences. So why not employ the rebellious spirit in the cause of staying in exile?

Pharaoh therefore enlisted the two most defiant individuals he could find, the women whose lives were dedicated to bringing more Jewish life into the world and whose very nature and profession were all about liberation.

Pharaoh purposely chose midwives to carry out his plan because women in general, and midwives in particular, are associated with the power of Redemption.

The Power of Women

In Kabbalah and Chassidic thought we are told that women in general are more in tune with Redemption and less affected by the outside world. The Talmud states, “Women are endowed with greater binah/understanding than men." The Divine attribute of binah is referred to in Kabbalah as “the world of freedom.”The Talmud explicitly attributes the exodus from Egypt to the merit and power of women. And the future Redemption, in particular, is deemed as the age in which the spiritual feminine characteristics will dominate.

But midwives in particular personify the idea of Redemption. The prophet Yechezkel describes the Exodus from Egypt as the birth of the Jewish nation. Our suffering in the last years of exile are said to be the “birth pangs” of Moshiach.

A midwife therefore symbolizes the liberating power of emerging out of exile into the world of freedom. This idea is buttressed by the statement in the Talmud suggesting that Moshiach’s coming is dependent on the birth of all the souls that are destined to be born. Thus, the literal birth of a child is the physical medium through which the spiritual power of birth is channeled.

Of all the midwives whom he could have chosen, Pharaoh selected the two who personified the qualities of transcending exile conditions more than any other. Shifrah and Puah, as stated, were actually Yocheved and Miriam. Yocheved was born as they entered into Egypt. She was the link between the world of freedom and the world of exile. She had the power to synthesize the two so that even in exile one is able to transcend it. Miriam, on the other hand, was a product of exile conditions; her very name means bitterness because she emerged at the time the bondage reached its harshest and lowest point. But despite these bitter conditions she was the prophetess who predicted the birth of Moses, the liberator of the Jews from bondage.

Pharaoh therefore cunningly asked the two most prominent and exile-defiant women, ironically, to use their power to abort the entire process of Redemption!

What more clever tactic could anyone have contrived? What more effective way to strengthen the exile than by enlisting the most powerful forces of liberation in the cause of keeping the Jews in exile?
Pharaoh therefore asked to spare the women. He specifically wanted to keep the women (read: the forces of birth and liberation) alive to re-educate them to rebel against any emerging spirit of defiance. Rather than try to suppress the dynamic of liberation by taking it on directly, he would “hijack” it and direct it to destroy its own power.

Enlisting Shifrah and Puah

This explains why the Torah uses the names of Shifra and Puah; these names reflect these midwives’ incredible life-sustaining powers which Pharaoh sought to enlist in his plan. Shifrah, our Sages tell us, was so named because she would beautify the children at birth and Puah refers to her talent to coo to the children when they cried. These two traits are the two most exile negating traits. Beauty, it is taught in Kabbalah, refers to the power of synthesis; it represents the dynamic of Redemption which blends the highest spiritual forces within the lowest realms of existence. And soothing the child refers to the power of women to take away the pain of exile.

But Pharaoh failed in this regard as well because, as the midwives told him, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are skilled as midwives. Before the midwife comes to them, they have already given birth.”

The question arises, if the Hebrew women gave birth before the midwives came, why was there a need for the midwives at all? Obviously the midwives’ role was to assist in the birth process and to help the mother and baby after the birth, but the actual birth did not require the midwife’s expertise.

Every Jew(ishWoman) a Midwife

On the spiritual plane, the midwives' response to Pharaoh was to refute his premise that Jewish resiliency and spiritual creativity emanated from an external source. In fact, the Hebrew women have an innate spiritual force that enables them to rise above the exile constraints and to bring a newborn into the world. The midwives are our spiritual mentors who assist us in recognizing our own potential. They might even be needed to assist in the birthing process. In addition, the spiritual midwives bring more beauty to our spirituality (Shifrah) and comfort us with soothing words when exile conditions depress and discourage us (Puah). But when push comes to shove, it is the unique, innate G‑dly energy that all Jewish women possess, in greater measure than men, which empowers them to release themselves and all of us out of exile.

The Lessons

One of the lessons from the above is that there is a Pharaoh mentality that threatens to undermine the process of Redemption that we are now in.

A second lesson is that when this Pharaoh discovers he cannot beat us with the conventional method of distraction through oppression and anxiety associated with basic survival, he will attempt to get us to use our own natural resistance to exile and our rebellious spirit (our spiritual midwives) to abort the process of Redemption.

This undermining dynamic can manifest itself by using Moshiach as a way to draw a wedge between one Jew and another. Moshiach is all about the unification of the Jewish people. We may have a solid belief in the imminence of the Redemption and be involved in efforts towards this end. But at the same time we may take these commendable traits to justify looking condescendingly at others who have not yet joined in this effort or who may have other ideas, right or wrong, to achieve our goal.

This is Pharaoh’s attempt at using the midwives to abort the very process of Redemption.
Alternatively there are some whose level of Judaism is compromised because they feel incorrectly that the Messianic Age will no longer require Mitzvah observance. This mindset effectively takes the very force of liberation and places it in shackles. Moshiach itself then becomes a hostage to the forces of exile.

A third lesson is that every Jew, and particularly the women, is innately involved with the process of“birth” and of bringing Moshiach. Moshiach is not a foreign influence; it is an integral part of our consciousness that just needs to be awakened and cultivated properly.

A fourth lesson is that despite our natural desire for Moshiach, we do depend on the spiritual “midwives” or mentors, those whom the Rebbe directed all of us to follow. These mentors enhance our preparations for the Redemption and provide us with comfort and succor when the burdens of exile bear heavily on us—the Shifrahs and Puahs of the world.

Moshiach Matters

It is incumbent to await the coming of Moshiach every single day, and all day long... It is not enough to believe in the coming of Moshiach, but each day one must await his coming... Furthermore, it is not enough to await his coming every day, but it is to be in the manner of our prayer "we await Your salvation all the day," that is, to await and expect it every day, and all day long, literally every moment! (Torat Zev)

Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit