Refusing to Follow Orders


When Pharaoh decided to perpetrate genocide against the Jews, he ordered the midwives to kill every male baby born to a Hebrew mother. But midwives Shifrah and Puah (or Yocheved and Miriam, who were actually Moses’ mother and sister, and given nicknames relating to their midwifery) refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders because they “feared” God, and His law against murder, to Pharaoh’s decree of genocide.

Indeed, the entire story of our Egyptian experience is fraught with instances of courageous individuals — Egyptians and Hebrews alike — whose fealty to a higher moral authority gave them the fortitude to risk their own lives by refusing to carry out Pharaoh’s genocidal orders.

Even if the national identity of Shifrah and Puah is open to interpretation, Pharaoh’s daughter is a classic example of the gentile who puts her life on the line “refusing to follow orders” to save a Hebrew baby.

To understand this outstanding instance of a righteous gentile, let us examine a few verses of our reading in accordance with the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th-century dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva).

“Hoping to save her baby brother Moses from the Egyptians who were under orders to cast any Hebrew baby boy they saw into the Nile,” Miriam places him in a basket hidden along the banks of the river. When Pharaoh’s own daughter, Bitya, comes down to bathe in the river, her retinue of women departs to the river’s edge to allow their mistress a measure of privacy. When Bitya spies the wicker basket hidden among the reeds, she even sends away her trustiest maidservant, who generally never left her side. She retrieves the basket, and as she suspected, finds a Hebrew baby. Miriam, waiting nearby, offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for him.

According to the Netziv, the text then states that the child was adopted by Bitya, naming him Moses. Bitya justified her right to adopt him since she had drawn him out from the river and brought him up as her own, risking her life by refusing to follow her father’s orders. From Bitya’s perspective, this act of courage was tantamount to a biological mother risking her life to bring her baby into the world.

It is not by accident that it is Moses, brought up by Bitya in Pharaoh’s court, who rebelled against Pharaoh and killed an Egyptian task-master. His model for refusing to follow orders was none other than his Egyptian mother, Bitya.

During the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war criminals (1945-46), the major line of defense used by the Nazi defendants was that a soldier cannot be held accountable for actions which were ordered by a superior officer. Even if this argument was not always sufficient for exoneration, it was certainly deemed sufficient for lessening the punishment. Ultimately, Nuremberg Principle IV concluded that “the fact that a person acted pursuant to the order of his government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.” In other words, if he would be severely punished or murdered for refusing to obey an order to commit genocide, he would not be culpable.

How different is the Talmudic position of 2,000 years ago: “If a gentile tells you to kill X or he will kill you, you must allow yourself to be killed, for who says that your blood is redder than his?” [Sanhedrin 74a]. Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, led the way.

Israeli law was established by the Kafr Kasim Massacre Judgment (1957), which ruled that a soldier is not obligated to examine the legality of each military order but must refuse a specific order that is “blatantly illegal, so illegal that it is as if above it flies a black flag declaring ‘prohibited,’” in the words of Judge Benjamin Halevy.

I believe that every soldier must give priority to God’s law over human law, even the law of the IDF. However, refusing to carry out an IDF command must only apply when the individual believes that by carrying out the order an innocent life will be taken, or that fundamental human rights are being removed. In the instance of giving land for peace, however, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik ruled that the elected government of Israel has the right to decide whether sacrificing land for peace is operable and under which conditions. Such a decision must be governmental and not individual, since lives will be at stake with either decision!

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:36 p.m.

Torah: Ex.1:1-6:1

Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:23; 29:22-23 (Ashkenaz); Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

Havdalah: 5:38 p.m.