The Torah has been described as a flowing river. You can step in and out, but it is always babbling with the voices of generations and communities around the world. We cannot read Torah without questioning, analyzing, debating, and imagining — and these conversations, preserved in our texts and traditions, add layers of meaning to our sacred tomes and to our lives. With that in mind, I offer my vision of a conversation flowing between the lines of this week’s Torah portion.
The midwives Shifrah and Puah sat together in the bulrushes in the moments just after sunrise. Shifrah broke the silence with a loud sigh. “How did we even get here?” she wondered rhetorically, but Puah, naive as she was, took the bait.
“What am I supposed to say to that? I don’t know how we got here! I don’t even know where we are!”
“I know, I know,” Shifrah soothed. “Let’s take things one step at a time and then we will figure this out. Here’s what we know … ” She sighed in disbelief and despair. “Pharaoh made a decree — and he was very specific — ‘When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: If it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live’” (Exodus 1:16).
“I can’t do it.” Puah said, holding back tears.
“That’s why we are here. We’re going to make a plan. We aren’t going to abandon our neighbors at their time of need.”
Puah wanted to trust Shifrah but her fear was so heavy she could barely breathe.
Shifrah continued, “We know these women, the Hebrew women. We have shared their greatest joy and their deepest sorrow. They trust us, so we must be trustworthy.”
“But if we don’t follow this decree, Pharaoh is going to kill us.”
“I just need time to think,” Shifrah said, immediately regretting her brash tone.
They stared at the ground hoping something would materialize before their eyes. Shifrah could remember a time before this Pharaoh, a time where things were better. Or maybe not better, maybe just easier for her and those she loved. Things hadn’t been perfect but all too quickly they had shifted from bad to worse. It was time to take a stand: If not now, when (Avot 4:1)? Shifra cleared her throat.
“Here’s what we are going to do. We’re going to warn the women, help them make plans to save their sons. We’re going to Yocheved next, right? We helped her deliver Aaron and Miriam. She trusts us and we can trust her.”
“And what will we say to Pharaoh?” asked Puah.
“We’ll diminish ourselves in his eyes.”
“We shouldn’t have to do that.”
“We shouldn’t have to do any of this, but such is life. We’ll tell him the Hebrew women were too strong. By the time we have arrived, they have already given birth (Exodus 1:19).There was nothing we could do.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Pharaoh can’t take away our power if he thinks we are powerless.”
Again Puah wanted so badly to believe. She looked at Shifrah, who seemed to be reading her mind. “It doesn’t help fix the system, but we are just two people. We can only do the good we can do, but we must do it.”
“Must we?” asked Puah. “What if we just warned the women and then actually came too late to help them?”
“Could you sit idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed?” (Leviticus 19:16)
“We’re not even Hebrews. How did we get into this mess?”
“When you are part of a community, you are your neighbor when your neighbor is suffering. ‘In a free society, only some may be guilty but all are responsible.’” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
Puah let some of her anger slide away. She remembered again that they were not fighting some abstract battle of words but facing a real and present problem.
“What will people think of us?” Puah asked her friend.
“Some won’t like it. Some won’t understand. And some will see us as heroes. They will count us among the best of humanity, those who risk their lives to save others. Some will say that we only did this because we were part of the Hebrew people — maybe even Jocheved and Miriam themselves” (Rashi on Exodus 1:15:2).
“Won’t that diminish the risk we are taking?”
“It doesn’t matter. Ultimately, what we are doing is more important than why we are doing it or who we are. When we have the opportunity to save a life we must take it, because one who saves a single life, it is as if she has saved an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).
“I’m in,” said Puah hesitant but resolute. “I just … I wish the world was different.”
“Me too,” sighed Shifrah.
And the two walked on together (Genesis 22:8). PJC
Rabbi Emily Meyer lives in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.