Preserving Human Life
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we begin the book of Shemot, Exodus. It begins by telling us that a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph. This new king saw that the Israelites were very numerous and, in fact, could threaten his kingdom. This Pharaoh taxed the Hebrews and forced them to work for him, but despite these hardships the Hebrew people continued to increase in number.
Pharaoh then decided to make harsher rules against the Israelites. He decreed that the Hebrew male babies would have to be killed as soon as they were born. Probably because he thought this was not going to be a popular decree, he did not at first publish his decision. Instead, he approached the midwives that took care of the Hebrew women, Shiphrah and Puah, and told them to kill the male Hebrew babies.
Surprisingly (or not?), the midwives decided to let the babies live. The Torah states that the reason for their decision is that they “feared God” (Exodus 1:17).
Here are a few thoughts about the midwives’ behavior:
– First: Please notice that the action of the midwives is the first civil disobedience case in that Shiphrah and Puah put their lives at risk with their insubordination. They decided not to follow the order of the man who was in charge of the most powerful empire at that time.
– Second: Let’s think about the role of the midwives and the order they received. The midwives were the ones in charge of helping women deliver their babies. Without a doubt, this was one of the more noble occupations in the ancient world and it probably continues to be that way today. In many cases, the life of the newborn and/or its mother depended on the abilities of these women. Pharaoh asked them to neglect their duties, their reason for being alive, and to act against one of their ultimate goals, which is to protect the life of the newborn.
– Third: What is the Torah trying to tell us when it says that the midwives disobeyed Pharaoh because they feared God? It states a religious axiom: The fear of God must always be above the fear of man, even above the fear of the most powerful man. More importantly, I believe the Torah is trying to explain that there are certain basic moral rules that must be above man-made laws. In my simple words, I would say that the midwives thought, “if there is a God in the universe, then He cannot allow babies to be killed.” That goes against the most basic instincts we feel as human beings. It is repulsive even to think about this barbarous idea.
There is a famous phrase that was introduced by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, that originally referred to the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. The phrase is “The banality of evil.” Eichmann never considered that his behavior was wrong during the Nazi regime, because he was only “doing his job.” The Nazi machinery went so far with its propaganda and brain washing that it could make people lose the most basic human instinct, the one that helps us to preserve life.
Amid the harsh descriptions of Hebrew slavery in Egypt, the courageous reaction of the midwives is a shining example of human hope. Their behavior can be compared to the righteous gentiles during the Holocaust years (the “righteous among the nations”) who also risked their lives because they “feared God,” because there was something inside them that told them “you are a human being… you cannot do this!”
I believe this kind of fearing God is universal, common to all humankind. The Jewish tradition has understood this principle very well and it is one its most important values. God wants us to live and to protect life on earth. Let’s learn from the exemplary and courageous action of the midwives Shiprah and Puah. When we can find people like them in our society, it means there is still hope among us!