A Word of Torah - Parashat Shemot

Living up to its own name, our Torah portion, Shemot - Names - has a lot of them. Some of them are known to us. Some are new. And some aren’t given at all. 

Among the new names are those of Shiphrah and Puah - the two midwives whom Pharaoh orders to kill all the male Israelite newborns. And therein lies a curiosity. We know the names of the servants. We don’t know the name of the king they serve. Indeed, his only identifying characteristic seems to be that he “did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8).

The Rashi on this verse directs us to a dispute in the Talmud between Rav and Shmuel as to this Pharaoh’s identity (Sotah 11a). One insists that he really is a new leader, while the other claims it was the same Pharaoh as in Joseph’s time who issued new decrees following the latter’s death. To me, the significance of this argument is that it underscores the essential anonymity of the office holder. Is he the same one? Is he a different one? The Torah sees no compelling reason for us to know.

Perhaps this reflects an Egyptian ethos which saw the Pharaoh as a constant in their circular understanding of time. But in failing to identify the Pharaoh more personally, I think the Torah is telling us something about what it actually holds to be important. And as far as Pharaoh is concerned, the attitude seems to be “if you’ve seen one king of Egypt, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

I think this attitude reflects the Torah's view of human nature. Twice in the early chapters of Genesis (6:5 and 8:21) we are told that God perceives humankind’s predominant inclination to be toward evil. This is not to say that people are born evil, but rather that the choice for evil is usually the easier, more immediately pleasurable, or less risky one. We don’t need to develop a taste for potato chips, nor do most of us need to learn to act selfishly. And fleeing from a fight is often easier than standing one’s ground. In such a world - where evil creeps in quite naturally - there is little need to identify its particular sources. So the personal identity of the Pharaoh becomes largely irrelevant: he is merely today’s locus of evil; without him, there would be another.

Good, on the other hand, is a rarer commodity. It takes courage to defy authority and do the thing one thinks is right. So when Shiphrah and Puah disobey Pharaoh by not killing the Israelite newborns, God rewards them by making houses for them (Exodus 1:21). But I think God’s greater reward is the preservation of their names. And in this, perhaps, is a foreshadowing of the Ten Commandments. For among those is the promise that God will “visit the sins of the parents upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but do kindness to the thousandth (generation) of those who love Me…”(Exodus 20:5-6). For me, these verses are less about reward and punishment than they are about the staying power of good and evil.

The message here is that evil - because it is ubiquitous - is actually of little account. However cruel and unnatural it may be, it is quickly subsumed in the cauldron of human folly. But goodness, kindness, acts of love and caring are the stuff of everlasting value, for in them is the real sustenance of our world. And that is why I believe that the name of the mighty king who once embittered our lives is lost to us. And the names of two lowly midwives - Shiphrah and Puah - who acted kindly and selflessly, are preserved to this day.

Bruce Alpert