Civil Disobedience in Egypt


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:27 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 1:1-6:1
Haftorah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23 (Ashkenaz); Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
(Sephard) Havdalah: 5:29 p.m.                   

In the opening verses of Exodus, we learn that an injustice is being perpetrated against the Israelites. Instead of according Joseph’s family due respect and gratitude for saving Egypt from starvation, the new Pharaoh ignores Joseph’s past acts of administrative and financial genius. Onto ingratitude Pharaoh heaps unending slavery, giving vent to his paranoia and sadism by issuing a death decree against all Israelite male babies. The reader despairs, as do the Israelite slaves.

It is into this “heart of darkness” and genocide that the Torah injects two stories of resonating power. 

Rashi tells us that Pharaoh’s decree to drown all newborn Israelite boys is a drastic reaction to his astrologers’ prediction that a male redeemer is to be born to the Israelites. To effect a preemptive murder, Pharaoh enlists the agency of the midwives. He meets with them and commands, “When you deliver the Hebrew women… if it is a boy, kill him! If it is a girl, let her live” [Exodus 1:15-16]. Pharaoh is not giving Israelite girls a free pass. According to one teaching, in a dark echo of the long-ago taking of Sarai [Genesis 12], Pharaoh allows them to live only so that he and his court can have their pick of the Israelite slave girls.

But we detect cracks in the Pharaoh’s ranks. The midwives, named Shifra and Puah, engage in the first recorded act of civil disobedience. Fearing God, they disobey the king of Egypt, allowing the boy babies to live [Ex.1:17]! When an irate Pharaoh confronts them, they stand their ground and prevaricate to his face, buying time for the Israelite newborns. We begin to appreciate the significance of the Torah’s naming these two women — in an episode where no one else is named. Though their heroic act of disobedience is potentially suicidal, their gamble works; the midwives save countless lives. The Bible wants us to remember them.

The midwives’ disobedience is prelude to a second story, this one outlining a trio of subversive acts by unnamed women. 

A woman from the house of Levi, desperate to save her baby boy from death, weaves a basket of river reeds and places her baby into it, floating it on the Nile. The baby’s sister stands nearby, some say she watched from within the water itself. Then the unforeseen occurs. Pharaoh’s daughter — Bat Par’oh — exits the palace and steps into the Nile. The Midrash says she was afflicted with skin sores that were aggravated by the hot-water baths of the palace, so she sought relief in the river’s cool waters [Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer].

The fulcrum of our scene is the floating basket, as-yet undetected by the princess. We can practically hear the sister’s intake of breath, her hands raised to her mouth in horror and expectation. Will the princess see the basket?

She sees it [Ex. 2:5]. The suspense is palpable. Will she sound an alarm? Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that in the instant between the Bible’s phrases “she saw the ark” and “she sent forth her ‘amah’ to retrieve it,” Pharaoh’s daughter experiences an existential tug-of-war. She knows the basket contains a Hebrew baby; she also knows she is forbidden to save it; yet her compassion is aroused by the baby’s cries. The baby’s fate is in her hands.

There is an important visual image woven into the text. Have we ever noticed that these women’s hands are of singular focus? If we translate amah as “hand” (some say “handmaid”), we see the tiny scene for what it is: the narrative is setting out Moses’ literary, if not genealogical, provenance. The normally spare Torah text details the mother’s hands weaving and sealing the basket, then placing it into the river. Next it tells us that the princess’ outstretched hand retrieves it. The baby is “handed” from one woman to another. Thanks to the sister’s audacious intervention, Bat Par’oh hands the baby back to its birth mother to nurse, and in two years’ time the nurse will in turn hand the toddler back to the princess. The Torah expects us to see their hands, but to infer their trembling hearts.

We recognize an anthropomorphic refrain from later in the Exodus story: “With a strong hand and an outstretched arm’ God takes us out of bondage.” The image of the saving hand is one we understand, so the Torah uses it to describe God’s intervention.

These two stories that open the Book of Shemot (ironically, meaning “names”) reinforce for us that saving a single life is a deeply personal act and a human responsibility. That is why the phrase in our story — that Pharaoh’s daughter “set forth her amah and took” the basket — is so effective. It surprises us! This royal Egyptian woman, with her own hands, saves a Hebrew baby.

First the midwives, and then three underestimated women — Hebrew and non-Hebrew, of disparate status and culture — by dint of courage, desperation, and moral compassion, save the day. For this, and other reasons, the Talmud [Sotah 11b] lauds the women of that generation, crediting them with Israel’s redemption from Egypt. We can see why.

Sandra E. Rapoport is an attorney and author. Her award-winning book, “Biblical Seductions,” is now a serialized Kindle e-Book. Rapoport teaches Bible at Drisha and at the JCC in Manhattan.