Shifra & Puah, midwives of our history. Parashat Shemot names some strong women without whom Moses would not have survived.

After a dearth of women in the last sidra, the beginning of the book of Exodus simply teems with them.  Many are unnamed and described only in their relationship to men : We meet the daughter of the tribe of Levi who marries a man of Levi at the beginning of Chapter 2. In the dangerous world of a Pharaoh determined to suppress the Israelite population by killing every male child not only has a baby but hides him for three months, before making a vessel of bulrushes and placing the child in it to be caught in the reeds at the river’s edge.

We meet the sister of this child who watches to see what will happen.  She observes  the daughter of Pharaoh who comes with her maids to bathe in the river. Seeing the little vessel  she sends one maid to fetch it and on finding  the baby expresses compassion for him. The sister comes from her hiding place and suggests to the Pharaoh’s daughter that she can find a wet-nurse.  On gaining approval for this suggestion the sister calls the child’s mother who agrees to nurse the child in exchange for money from the Pharaoh’s daughter.

The baby is the centre of the story here, but there are three women who contrive to save his life, two of whom we will later learn are Yocheved his mother and Miriam his sister. The daughter of Pharaoh remains anonymous.

Once the baby is grown, he is brought back to the daughter of Pharaoh who names him Moses, because, bible reports, “ I drew him out of the water”.  While we may know that the blood relatives of the baby are present, at this moment there is a formal adoption of the child into the Egyptian fold.

The next thing we know is that Moses, having killed an Egyptian taskmaster  for hurting an Israelite man, is fleeing for his life from the anger of Pharaoh, and now we meet seven more unidentified women – the seven daughters of Reuel, priest of Midian.

One of these women will shortly be named as she is given to Moses for a wife – Zipporah. And Zipporah gives birth to a boy, Gershom, named for Moses’ alienation: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.‘ It seems that Moses does not circumcise his son or bring him into the brit/covenant of Abraham, either because this is unknown to him or because his alienation extends to his relationship with the Israelites. When, after his meeting with God in the wilderness, he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrews, his life is once again in danger, it is Zipporah who saves him. In an obscure passage “God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it as his feet, and she said ‘surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me”. So God let him alone, and she said “A bridegroom of blood in regard to circumcision”

Two more figures make up the set of women in this passage who surround and support Moses – the midwives Shifra and Puah.

Shifra and Puah are midwives in Egypt. They are therefore at the cutting-edge of the Royal decree to ensure that all the Hebrew baby boys are murdered at birth.  The survival of the Israelite people is dependent on their actions. Shifra and Puah disobey the Royal decree, because , the text tells us, they feared/revered God. When called to account by Pharaoh this is not what they tell him, instead they say the Hebrew women are like animals (חָיוֹת) and before the midwives can get to them they have already delivered their babies. The narrator then tells us that  “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty. And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that God made households  בָּתִּים for them” – a reference to both material goods and to children.

The story (and the chapter) ends with Pharoah’s decree repeated, but this time he broadens his audience from the midwives to the whole people: And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive” (1:22).  While he does not challenge the midwives’ version of the story he extends the diktat to all of the people.

So who are these women who pivot our history so decisively and so bravely?

While the Masoretic tradition assumes that they are themselves Hebrew women, this is by no means clear.  Their names are understood as more likely to be Semitic than Egyptian. Shifra (from the root שפר) means something along the lines of beauty/clarity but the root also gives us the noun “shofar” the horn that is blown to call to attention. The name Puah is likely also to mean to shine/beauty but neither of these names is easy to translate or to mine meaning from – or even identity – from.

The Talmud tells us “Rav and Shmuel [interpreted the verse העבריות למילדות ] One said: a woman and her daughter, and one said: a woman and her mother in-law. He who said a woman and a daughter: they were Yocheved and Miriam. He who said a women and her mother in law: they were  Yocheved and Elisheva.” (BT Sotah 11b)

From this interpretation emerged all the midrashim and commentary (and Masoretic vocalisation) that Shifra and Puah were both Hebrew women and of the family of Moses.

But the interpretation conflicts both with what the text tells us and with the emotional ‘sense’ of the piece. Would Pharaoh really ask Hebrew women to murder the baby boys of their fellow women?  Surely this is a task he would entrust to women from another ethnic identity? And when the midwives explain to Pharaoh why they are not fulfilling his order, they talk about the Hebrew women as being unlike Egyptian women, saying they are ‘as animals’. There is no sense that either they or Pharaoh are doing anything other than seeing the Hebrew women as ‘other’ than, and less than them – the Egyptians.

And what about the information that God dealt well with the midwives and rewarded them [with households]? From everything else we know about Miriam and Yocheved, they were not rewarded materially, nor did they become the heads of households. The correlation simply does not ring true.

So why does the tradition speak of Shifra and Puah as being not only not Egyptian women who revered God, but also tries to identify them with the Hebrew women who protected Moses’ life?

From a modern perspective we need to ask  why the tradition chooses to narrow down how the text is read so that named and autonomous Egyptian women become Hebrew women whose introduction to us is only in relation to the men. And also we need to question the erasure of the real identity of Shifra and Puah as Egyptian women who revere God and who choose to serve God and rebel against the Pharaoh from their own belief systems and through their own agency.

The text of the Hebrew bible – at least the consonants of the Hebrew bible, was agreed upon by the second century CE. But the vowels of that text – which could dramatically alter meaning – were not agreed upon at that time. It took the work of the ba’alei ha’mesorah, groups of scholarly scribes working from about the 7th to the 10th century CE to finally standardise the grammar of the text – its vowels, the breaks (verses and paragraphs), the accenting/cantillation marks.

This is important because the identity of the women as either Hebrew or Egyptian relies on the vocalisation of the letters of the two words        למילדות.   העבריות    Depending on the vowels we can either read the words as “to the Hebrew midwives” or as “to the midwives of the Hebrew women” (grammatical point – whether there is a patach under the lamed and a dagesh in the mem or a chirik under the lamed and no dagesh)

There are other texts which operate on the vocalisation of the text as “midwives of the Hebrew women” – ie that understand Shifra and Puah to be Egyptian. The Septuagint, for example, the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek which was completed in the 3rd Century understands the text this way. Josephus in his “Antiquities” (1st Century) describes the women as Egyptian midwives who served the Hebrew women. Some other biblical commentators also understand the text to mean that the women were Egyptian (eg Abarbanel, Judah heHasid). Most interestingly there are fragments of texts which specifically name Shifra and Puah as Egyptian “righteous women who converted to Judaism” (Yalkut Shimoni does so (@13th Century), and there is a fragment from the Cairo genizah (@10th Century) which also lists Shifra and Puah as righteous gentile women who helped the Israelite people and who revered God.

Since the Masoretes vocalised the text to make the midwives Hebrew women, and Rashi follows the tradition from BT  Sotah we find ourselves corralled to seeing them not as brave Egyptian women who followed their consciences and put their faith in God, but as Hebrew women doing exactly what we would expect them to do, and indeed see them as the sister and mother of Moses whose function was entirely about protecting him as an infant.

Shifra and Puah, two brave women who stood up against the powers in their country, who saw human beings where the Pharaoh saw a population of migrants threatening his country, who revered God and acted both morally and with compassion, remind us that we are not alone as Jews. Through them and through others like them we see that God is not just ‘ours’, but is a universal God with whom we Jews have a particular relationship (as other have a particular, and different relationship). Shifra and Puah, whose names describe beauty, are also women who radiate morality and who call us to arms, to fight for what is right.

So why was the agency of two righteous gentile women erased in this way? Because they were foreign? Because they were women? Because they were necessary to Moses’ survival and pivotal in the narrative arc? Because they took risks and made their own decisions against the power of the Pharaoh?

Is the erasure of their identities and their active choices that changed our history forever  down to conspiracy or to accident?  I leave the reader to decide.

Parashat Shemot: naming the past honestly with all its inglorious realities

In his Chumash, Rabbi Dr Hertz comments on the story of the exodus of the Jewish slaves from Egypt, and, as part of his argument for the historical reality of such an experience says “What people would invent for itself so ignoble a past? A legend of such tenacity, representing the early fortunes of a people under so unfavourable an aspect, could not have arisen save as a reflection of real occurrences”.

His comment brings home to us the truth of the way we write history. Written most often by the winners, it us usually a tool for the glorification of our past. Rarely do we record the miserable realities of hardship or pain, the mundanity of grinding poverty, the banality of living simply to survive – instead we tend to cast a glowing light on our past, speak of the golden ages when everything was apparently so much better than it is now, ascribe attributes and events to show our antecedents fitting an image we feel they should have.

Only the Jews it seems, record our history in all its embarrassing baseness. We record the anger of God against us, as well as God’s redemption of our people. We record our lowly origins, our family breugess’, our bad behaviour as well as our good

.  Reading the Hebrew bible we find real people emerging from the narrative, people in bad moods, people who are afraid or selfish, who favour one child over another or who can’t quite let go of a bad habit. We meet character traits in our ancestors that we can recognise easily today, the challenges that face us now can be seen to have been faced before. We are unusual in that our stories about our past show the meanness, the sadness, the destitution, the low social status. Our history is too important to us to leave to the myth makers – we have to have it recorded as it was, and we have to repeat it year on year in public, reminding ourselves of the shortcomings in our less than glorious past.

It is because we have recognised the importance of our history, its centrality and its impact on our present that we have continued to be Jews. It is because we know and reprise our origins that we are able to develop our covenantal relationship with God. There are no secrets, no glosses, and no skeletons in the cupboard which might suddenly appear and throw us off balance. And with the stories of our past of slavery and poverty, of ancestral wrongs and religious dead ends, we tell the other stories too – of those who listened and heard the presence of God, of amazing selflessness, of faith and courage, of journeys into the unknown leading to blessing and covenant.

The word ‘Shemot’ means ‘names’. We will be reading the names of those who went down to Egypt with Jacob, in preparation for telling the stories of Exodus, the journey into the desert, the leap of faith into the future. Before we can go forward, we must root ourselves in our history, before reading of the exodus we remember how we got to where we are. Jewish tradition is very clear that our present is rooted in our past, and who we will be must emerge from who we have been.

Beginning to read the second book of Torah, with its sense of new beginnings, of God returning into history, of a great journey about to be made, we remember the weight of our history even as we start a new year in the secular calendar. We may be closing the door on another year, but all that has gone on in this last year should not be forgotten by us. We are the people who remember things as they really were, not as we should like them to have been. We are the people who are not afraid to write a history that does not glorify us, whose heroes have faults, whose stories expose problems. As the New Year promises a new future, remember to honour the past by remembering it as it really is.

Parashat Shemot: the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing it.

ottenstein cemetery

Picture of Jewish Cemetery, Ottenstein: Rothschild family cemetery

 

One of the signs of reaching middle age is an interest in family history, as the past begins to assume an importance it didn’t have before and we want to know more about from where we came in order to pass on a strong link to the next generations.
    The book of Exodus begins with a brief genealogy and also retells the foundational story of the family as the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob are given to us once more, along with a reminder that this one man had 70 immediate descendants – 70 being a combination of two perfect numbers (7 and 10) and so showing a completeness to his life as a patriarch.
    But as quickly as the people of Israel increased and multiplied in Egypt, tragedy struck, a new king arose who saw them not as an asset to the community but as a threat, and so organised the legalised oppression of these people. Apparently determined not to be destroyed by this subjugation the Israelites continued to have many children and the pharaoh’s response was to take his cruelty down to the newborn children, by having every male child murdered at birth.  Yet the Hebrew midwives who were instructed to do this disobeyed, and playing upon the stereotype of the Israelite women being different from local women, told Pharaoh that they could not kill the newborn boys as they were born so quickly. And so the oppression was taken from the hands of the officials and given into the hands of the people – every boy born to the Hebrews should be thrown into the river.
      As a family history it is painful reading. Even though we know the ending, (for here we are about three millennia later still thriving), to know what our early family had to endure is excruciating. I reacently read  the memoirs of another family member, Ephraim Rothschild who lived in the Hannover area and who wrote his family history over the five years from his 85th to his 90th birthday in 1898. The stories of illness and early deaths, of capriciously unjust authorities, of marriages and children and movements to different villages to escape limitations on numbers of Jews, of legal restrictions and consequent struggles to find ways of making a good living and educating one’s children – it is an insight into a world that I can only say I am grateful not to have been born into. And yet as I read about graduates of the Jacobson school being taken into his employment, and his doubt about what would become of the descendants of those who professed Reform Judaism, there is something of the same feeling as reading the beginning of Shemot – our ancestors could not know what their descendants would become, they could only do what was right and possible in their time and their context in order to create the best chances for their family/people/religion to continue. And they could tell their story, which would include naming the names, reminding their descendants of the familial link and the story that went right back to Sinai.
     Ephraim Rothschild and the family from which he came lived generally in small towns away from the hub of political activity for 230 years, the connection to the area ending only when my grandfather left Hannover (via Baden Baden) for Dachau in November 1938 and my teenage father left Hannover for England. Not quite the 430 years of sojourning in Egypt, but a substantial time nevertheless, and a time when the family story continued to be told and passed onto the next generations. The memoir makes clear that his main interest was his family and the family business, and while he had some criticisms of the Judaism of his time, both the conservative forces of reaction and the too radical (for him) forces of Reform, he took it upon himself to endow and run a synagogue. But he also took it upon himself to learn the new political and economic ideas, teaching himself the essence of democratic politics and national economy, even writing to Bismarck and then to the Kaiser with his ideas and recommendations.  While never taking on the authorities too far, or taking a path of outright disobedience, he chose to play as full a part as he could in improving the lot of his fellow Jews and his fellow Germans.  Living in a relative backwater was no hindrance to his taking part in life. As in the opening of of the book of Shemot, Ephraim’s memoir tells the stories and names the names, and he seems content to do his best within the context and place he found himself, keeping family and religion going to the next generations. And with the stories we find out about some of the women of the family, and how hard they worked to keep everything going.

The title of the book of Shemot (names) is usually understood to refer to the names of the sons of Jacob who came down to Egypt with him, but there are other names to be found in this sidra and there are areas where the naming of names seem to be deliberately avoided. In particular within the story leading to the birth and naming of Moses which is found in this sidra only three names are made clear – the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah are named and described twice as women who “revered God”, and their civil disobedience in aiding the labouring Hebrew women is recorded in bible, as well as their divine reward which is understood by Rashi to be that they became the founders of great dynasties themselves. Yet the father of Moses and the mother of Moses are described only as coming from the tribe of Levi, the Egyptian woman who rescued him is only described as ‘bat Paro’ – a daughter or female relative of Pharaoh, and the sister who oversees the rescue as ‘his sister’. Moses himself is finally named by the daughter of Pharaoh only ten verses later when he has been weaned by his mother and returned to her in the royal household.

This naming of the God-fearing midwives, yet the deliberate non-naming – almost to the point of clumsiness in the text – of all the others around Moses’ birth and rescue reads curiously in a sidra called “Names”. Is it trying to tell us that sometimes we must stand up and put our names to our acts of justice while at other times it is better to do so in anonymity?  Certainly that thought has resonances today in a world anonymity on the net.

      Or is it trying to say that sometimes it is the story that is important and the players are merely functionaries whose naming might distract us? Or maybe that it is our relationships with each other that truly matter and not just ourselves? Or that who we really are – the essence that is caught up in our name – can only be understood in the context of who we are connected to and what we do in our lives.

     The study of one’s family history can be fun and also it can be painful as the many stories of persecution and deprivation echo down the centuries along with the names, often the same names used repeatedly so that one can no longer tell who is being remembered in the naming.  But just to get caught up in who was who is not to in any way know about them. For that one needs the stories, the way the relationships developed, the sense of what they did and the context for why they did it. And we need also to recognise the difference between knowing the name of something, and knowing something. As Richard Feynman wrote “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing — that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

parashat Shemot

The book of Exodus begins with race hatred, forced slavery, infanticide, adult murder, and a fugitive hero. The runaway Moses finds comfort in the desert with the family of Jethro a priest of Midian, whose daughters were themselves being ill-treated by some itinerant shepherds while trying to draw water for their flock. In a moment of high romance Moses single-handedly stood up the shepherds and helped the girls draw the water they needed, and so was taken into the family and looked after, marrying Zipporah and fathering two sons. 

It could have happened that the story of Moses effectively ended here – keeping the flock of Jethro, a much appreciated son in law for a man with seven daughters – but for the event that followed. While out one day with the sheep, nowhere very special, Moses noticed a bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed by it. Bush fires can’t have been all that uncommon in the dry hot desert. Yet Moses watched this one for enough time to recognise that it was unusual. And once he recognised that something else was happening, so it was that God spoke to him, telling him that the cry of the Israelites had reached the heavens, that God was going to re-enter history and rescue the people of Israel from the Egyptians and take them back to their own land, and that Moses was going to be his agent, speaking both to Pharaoh and to the Jews.

All very dramatic. All rather terrifying – particularly to the lone boy who had fled Egypt from a murder charge, who had grown up in an Egyptian Royal Household, who was living at the whim of others. How was he to believe it was God talking to him? How was he to convince others that God had spoken? How could he face a return to Egypt to try to persuade a Pharaoh he already knew would not believe him, to let the Hebrew slaves go?

Small wonder that Moses doubts. And demurs. And really doesn’t want to get involved. Even with the addition of two more signs – a stick that turns into a serpent, a hand that becomes leprously white then healthily pink – and the promise of more, Moses is reluctant. Not me – I’m not very articulate…

It is, when you think about it, a very odd meeting. Where has God been all these years? Was God around but simply not noticed?

Why choose a bush in the wilderness in which to make a statement? Why choose someone so naïve and young and frightened and just a little bit anxious, someone from the very fringes of the community, someone who had been given away because being within the community seemed just too dangerous? Just what was it in Moses that God recognised as being the necessary characteristic for leadership? Just what was it at the bush that Moses stopped to ponder – what really did he see and understand?

Many years ago my teacher Jonathan Magonet asked – how long would you have to look at a bonfire before you realised it wasn’t actually burning up? It was an illuminating question. Moses must have demonstrated an ability to watch, to focus, to be patient, to contemplate the unimaginable, for him to have noticed that the burning bush wasn’t actually being consumed.

More even than the willingness to take the time, more even than the ability to focus and to observe, I think it is the ability to imagine the indescribable that marks out Moses for leadership. He was able to think differently, to see in the normal and everyday occurrences something special and manifestly other, beyond what simply is. It is, it think no surprise that when asked for the name of the divinity that Moses must pass on to the people the name is “ehyeh asher ehyeh” “I will be whatever I will be.”

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see Moses not as the great leader of rabbinic tradition – we see a young and fragile man, emotional, dislocated, upstanding, and fearful. We see someone who could be great – he has demonstrated his sense of moral outrage, his willingness to act out his values, his affinity with his people, his support of the daughters of Jethro against injustice. And we see someone who could be a bit of a nebbish – full of doubts, a little bit unclear as to his identity, afraid, sensing himself as a continual outsider, with no obvious vision for himself or his future. He is someone we can recognise in our modern context.

True leadership requires not only vision, motivation, focus, and passion, it also requires someone with emotional intelligence, the ability to understand more than the current and obvious scenario, the willingness to do something not immediately clear or comprehensible to those around you. It means being rooted in the history or the culture of your place but not being held back by it, it means being open to whatever presents itself.