As we begin Exodus, we read about two midwives who defy the Law of Pharaoh who ordered them to kill all Hebrew baby boys. In the first recorded case of civil disobedience, these women choose to follow the moral law (the law of God) over the law of the land.
This week we begin a new book of Torah – Exodus / Sh’mot (Names) in Hebrew. It brings the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their own land of Israel.
In the first eighteen verses the Israelite family grows from Jacob/Israel’s family of seventy to a huge population that worries the Pharaoh of Egypt who says; “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us…” (Ex. 1:9-10) As life becomes more difficult for the Israelites, a child is born who will eventually lead them out of slavery to freedom in Israel.
But, as we see in the Exodus/Sh’mot, the path to freedom is not easy and is filled with many barriers… both internal and external.
Early in this week’s text, the Israelites encounter a challenge that has been troubling thoughtful people since the beginning of history…. What should be done when the law of the rulers (civil law) is in opposition with laws of God and religious beliefs (moral law)? This is what happened when Pharaoh thought the Israelites were too numerous. He spoke to the “Hebrew midwives” and told them; “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 Egypt had told them, they let the boys live.” (Ex. 1:16-17)
First, there is disagreement over who “Hebrew midwives” were. It is not clear whether these women were Hebrews or Egyptian midwives who served the Hebrew community.
Some say the midwives named in Torah – Shiphrah and Puah – were Hebrews. However, most feel that Pharaoh would not expect Hebrew midwives to kill babies in their own community. Hence, it is thought he told Egyptian midwives to carry out his decrees.
When the named midwives were told to kill all baby boys… they saw a conflict between the laws of Pharaoh and the moral rules of God. They “feared God” and acted as if the moral laws were of greater importance. And so we see the first recorded case of “civil disobedience.”
These women did what they felt was “morally” right and were ready to accept punishment for their actions. When confronted by Pharaoh, they claimed that the Hebrew wives were different from the Egyptian women. They claimed that the Hebrew women were “vigorous. Before the midwife can come to them they have given birth.” (Ex. 1:19) Pharaoh believed them and there was no punishment.…Torah continues by saying that God looked favorably upon these two midwives and “established households (successful future generations) for the midwives.
Throughout the rest of this week’s parsha there are several other acts of defiance against the will of Pharaoh. Moses’ mother hides her baby so that he will not be killed… Pharaoh’s own daughter rescues a baby from the Nile, knowing that it is a Hebrew baby…. Moses kills a Royal Guard who is beating a Hebrew…..All these actions are in defiance of Pharaoh’s laws: but, without these acts – any of which could have been punishable – the life and accomplishments of Moses would not have existed
In modern times civil disobedience has continued to shape history. People are still asking whether moral or political law has greater importance. We see it in issues of civil rights, abortion and same sex marriage.
But, what if the moral laws are not followed? “In 1946 the Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg all offered the defense that they were merely obeying orders, given by a duly constituted and democratically elected government. Under the doctrine of national sovereignty every government has the right to issue its own laws and order its own affairs. It took a new legal concept, namely a crime against humanity, to establish the guilt of the architects and administrators of genocide.”
“The Nuremberg principle gave legal substance to what the midwives instinctively understood: that there are orders that should not be obeyed, because they are immoral. Moral law transcends and may override the law of the state. As the Talmud puts it: “If there is a conflict between the words of the master (God) and the words of a disciple (a human being), the words of the master must prevail.” (Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, Sh’mot- On Not Obeying Orders, Covenant and Conversations appearing on Aish.com , 12/27/15)
Image “Affinity Group Collateral Damage” courtesy of Colorado Communities for Justice and Peace, Phil Weinstein.