Reflection: Shiphrah and Puah, the Two Midwives of Passover Faith and Freedom
The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover will be observed this month, beginning at sunset on April 22nd. Passover has many descriptive names, including ‘The Feast of Freedom’ because of its many interwoven foundational stories of liberation from abuse and oppression.
The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover will be observed this month, beginning at sunset on April 22nd. Passover has many descriptive names, including ‘The Feast of Freedom’ because of its many interwoven foundational stories of liberation from abuse and oppression. The Hebrew name for the festival, Pesach, literally refers to the animal sacrifices in the story; it also reflects personal sacrifices made by the enslaved Hebrews in order to remain steadfast in their faith and integrity. In the story, the two intrepid midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, exemplify women who preserve their spiritual integrity by subverting dangerous cultural policies; they take it upon themselves to redress Pharaoh’s decree of infanticide for the Hebrews. I see their actions on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed as a faith-based parallel to April’s observance of Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention Month.
The Passover story begins when a new Pharaoh of Egypt arises. He fears a takeover of his kingdom by the fast growing number Hebrew people and plans their cultural genocide through enslaving them with hard labour.
Seeing that the harsh labour was not working to slow the growing Hebrew population, Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Hebrew males were to be killed at birth. He charged the midwives Shiphrah and Puah with this this duty (Ex. 1:1-22). Shiphrah and Puah chose to defy the orders of the panicking Pharaoh, seeing him as a misguided human. They maintained their personal spiritual integrity and fulfilled their commitment as midwives to bring life into the world as safely as possible. With their faith in God and their principles, they went further, sequestering and feeding the newborn Hebrew boys.
How did they avoid death in the face of Pharaoh’s fear-driven murderous temper? They confounded him! They told him they had failed to kill the newborns as instructed because the Hebrew women were chiyoth, or like wild animals and vigorous, birthing their babies before the midwives could attend to murder the newborn males.
Because of the chutzpah, or wise initiative of these two women, the newborns were spared. Exodus tells us that for preserving and acting from their faith the midwives were rewarded with a bayit, a future for the Hebrew people. Preserving faith and integrity granted them both personal and cultural longevity.
Retelling the story of Shiphrah and Puah each year reminds me that our spiritual needs require attention and protection as much as our physical needs. One can easily be swayed by fear, uncertainty, or convention. It takes courage and determination to listen to and heed one’s source of spiritual guidance: in their case, their God. We have many recent examples of the tremendous harm that is done both within and outside of faith communities when no one steps in to protect the vulnerable.
The story of Shiphrah and Puah exemplifies how sacred texts can be a resource to turn to for inspiration and insight. We see how to identify and resist misguided human actions and policies that harm others. We learn how to liberate ourselves from the bondage of inhumane treatment and our own fears and become able to act on our convictions as our true selves.
About the Author: Chaplain Susan J. Katz, MA, Spiritual Health Practitioner, Musician
Susan is a hospital Chaplain providing secular as well as faith-based services to people of all genders and abilities. She has served in care homes, correctional facilities, urban health and addictions treatment centres in both the United States and Canada. Susan lives in Vancouver, Canada, and is a Professional Member of the Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, and an Associate Member of the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care. Susan’s writing and music can be found on her Web/Blog: The Compassionate Oboe.