This is dedicated to all the nurses and doctors, who are working around the clock in the fight against COVID-19.
If you look at different maternity ward websites in hospitals up and down the country, you will not see the names of the midwives who work in each department. The names of all the doctors are there, but those midwives, who bring life into the world with their hands, are not.
The book of Shemot (Exodus) is very different to our modern day internet:
“The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this thing, letting the boys live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women: they are vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them, they have given birth.” (Shemot 1:15-19)
Shifra and Puah do not only bring life to the world, they also save lives in a very practical way. In a moment of female solidarity they stand up to Pharaoh and say – absolutely not.
Many interpretations and discussions have attempted to explore whether or not Shifra and Puah are Jewish. Some commentators said they were Yocheved and Miriam (we don’t really know any other women so let’s find the two that we do know and just say they’re one and the same). Here is what the Sotah talmudic interpretation says on the matter: “Rav and Shmuel disagree as to the proper interpretation of this verse. One says that these midwives were a woman and her daughter, and one says that they were a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law. According to the one who says that they were a woman and her daughter, the women were Yocheved, the mother of Moses and Aaron, and her daughter, Miriam. And according to the one who says that they were a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law, the verse is referring to Yocheved and her daughter-in-law Elisheba, the wife of Aaron.” (Sotah 11b)
Professor Nechama Leibovitz countered these interpretations and claims the midwives are Egyptian: “If we accept that the midwives were Egyptian, a…very vital message becomes apparent. The Torah indicates how the individual can resist evil. He need not shirk his moral responsibility under cover of ‘superior orders’ … Neither moral courage nor sheer wickedness are ethnically or nationally determined qualities. Moab and Ammon produced Ruth and Naamah respectively; Egypt two righteous midwives.”
Leibovitz says “righteousness or wickedness are not determined by nationality”. In other words – why do people try so hard to prove that these women are Jewish? Why this obsession of proving their noble actions an outcome of their belonging to the Jews? When a baby comes into the world, before s/he understands which people s/he belongs to s/he will have to deal with colic and gas and, even before s/he asks her/himself the big questions, they need to face the pain of growing a set of teeth. They are small, weak, helpless creatures. This is a universal understanding for every midwife – whether she is Jewish, Muslim, Egyptian, Ammonite or Jesuit. You do not have to be a certain nationality to face evil, you just have to stand up and say no – in whichever language you’d like.
These are the names of the midwives who helped me bring life into the world: Ana, Tanya, Irena and Bat-Sheva.
And these are the names of the midwives who saved Israel : Shifra and Puah.
Yael Dinur is BINA’s outgoing marketing coordinator