The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:15-17)
The king used all sorts of devices to render the midwives amenable to his wishes. He approached them with amorous proposals, which they both repelled, and then he threatened them with death by fire. But they resisted. Indeed, instead of murdering the babies, they supplied all their needs. If a mother that had given birth to a child lacked food and drink, the midwives went to well-to-do women and took up a collection, so the poor infant might not suffer want.
(Midrash cited in Legends of the Jews)
Our Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—feels incredibly timely this Inauguration week, as it describes the world’s first recorded act of civil disobedience. When an immoral tyrant—in this case, Pharaoh—issues an unjust decree, the midwives Shifra and Puah actively resist, bravely refusing to kill the Hebrews’ baby boys. The midrash goes even farther, suggesting that they continued to actively aid the babies and their families after the births.
This is a bold—and essential—text. Under ordinary circumstances, our tradition calls us to show utmost respect for the civil authorities. As the Talmud notes: Dina d’malchuta dina—the law of the land is binding on the Jewish community. To which Rabbi Chanina added: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear of it, people would swallow each other alive.” Yet the Rabbis recognized that this principle of dina d’malchuta dina does not apply in the case of unjust laws and authorities. When rulers and policies undermine the Torah’s core ethical teachings, we are morally bound to resist them—as Shifra and Puah taught us.
I suspect that in the coming weeks and months, we will need to draw on their courage and resolve. May the Holy One of Justice and Compassion guide us on the forthcoming journey.