Parashat Shemot begins a new book of the Torah and a new era for the Israelites. Having resided in Egypt for generations, a new Pharaoh imposes on the Israelites lives of bitterness and slavery. Attempting to perpetrate genocide, the king orders the midwives to the Israelites to kill the boys but allow the girls to live. The midwives refuse to comply; choosing justice despite Pharaoh’s persecution, their defiance is the first act of civil disobedience in history.
The second half of verse Exodus 1:21, “He established houses for them,” presents an ambiguity; is the subject of the clause God or Pharaoh? For the most part, the biblical commentators understand the subject to be God who rewards the midwives for their heroism.
Rashi, paraphrasing a midrash, explains that the midwives Shifrah and Puah were the founders of priestly, levitical and royal dynasties. However, the medieval commentator Rashbam interprets otherwise; Pharaoh put the midwives under house arrest, depriving them of freedom and preventing them from saving more children. They are steadfast in their stance, fighting oppression without regard to their own liberty or safety.
The courage of the midwives is a model for all subsequent non-violent protests against injustice. Like the heroines of Parashat Shemot, the Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust or the civil rights workers who protested against the segregationist American south, they were motivated by the same sense of yirah, or awe, for an eternal moral authority.
Each of these heroes peacefully resisted the law because justice compelled them to stand up against tyranny. In the words of the civil rights leader the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr (whose birthday was observed last Sunday),“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.”