The midwives refuse and, from the look of things, they initiate an underground resistance movement, working cooperatively with the Israelite women to save the babies; Moses is the paramount fruit of their efforts. It further appears that the midwives’ resistance movement has a larger following than we might have thought.
This may shed light on a curious and anomalous facet of the story of the Exodus. Earlier, in chapter 3 of Exodus we read:
I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed. Each woman shall borrow (v’sha’a’la) from her neighbor (mi’she’khen’ta) and the lodger in her house (u’mi-gar’rat beita) objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping (v’ni’tzal’tem) the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:21-22)
The term v’sha’a’la means “borrow” which tells us that the Egyptians gave freely of their possessions to the Israelites; Torah tells us they were predisposed to give. The term v’ni’tzal’tem has a less positive connotation, suggesting that the Israelites fleeced the Egyptians. Note that the verses above speak of the Egyptians as neighbors and even boarders in the homes of the Israelites. Are you surprised? If the Egyptians gave their possessions freely, is this fleecing?
Now, in Parshat Bo, which records the last three plagues (locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt) we return to the notion that the Egyptians will materially support the Israelites when they break free of Pharaoh’s grasp and leave Egypt. Before the final plague that will win their release, God instructs Moses:
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all. Tell the people to borrow (va’yish’a’lu), each man from his neighbor (rei’ei’hu) and each woman from her neighbor (r’u’ta), objects of silver and gold.” (Exodus 11:1-2)
And indeed, Exodus 12:35-36 confirms that things went according to God’s plan: The Egyptians willingly turned over their gold and silver to the departing slaves.
The verb used in all three passages is sha’al, which means “borrow,” and the terms rei’ei-hu and r’u’ta, male and female neighbors, connote friendship and emotional closeness, not mere physical proximity. In our wedding liturgy, we refer to the couple under the chupah as rei’im ahuvim “beloved companions.” Same term.
Some commentators have attempted to explain this confusing scenario as the fulfillment of the biblical requirement to provide debt-servants with funds when they are set free:
If a fellow Hebrew man or woman is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat with that which your God Adonai has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and your God Adonai redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)
I don’t buy it. Deuteronomy speaks of Israelites who are indentured servants of other Israelites. Completely different.
I think what Torah is hinting at is that the underground movement inaugurated by the midwives’ refusal to comply with Pharaoh’s ghastly decree has a ripple effect: other Egyptians join ranks and when it comes time for the Israelites to physically depart, they willingly donate their own wealth to support their former mistreated neighbors in the Israelite’ epic endeavor to break free of slavery. The midwives initiate a ripple of compassion and kindness that spreads out and encompasses what must have been thousands upon thousands of Egyptians who give generously of their own wealth to people they have come to view not as “slaves” but as “neighbors.”
Perhaps darkness, the ninth plague, helps propagate the rippling wave. Parshat Bo reports that during darkness: People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings (Exodus 10:23). The Rabbis understand this to mean that the Egyptians feel no compassion toward the Israelites. But the evidence is to the contrary. Perhaps darkness is the blindness of the Egyptians who initially feel little or no compassion for the Israelites: they were “Other,” mere slaves. But the plague lifts when the Egyptians see the Israelites no longer as objects for exploitation, but as “neighbors” and friends, fellow human beings who are being cruelly treated. Perhaps when Torah reports God saying, “I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people…” that is a way of saying that the Egyptians will open themselves to what the mystics call the shefa, the flow of God’s compassion into the world.
That ripple of kindness continues to this day:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 222:20)
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)
It’s not just that we know the pain of the oppressed: we learned to transform our empathy into acts of compassion.
It is this ripple that informed the ethics of the great prophets. It is the ethics of the prophets that inspired Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to fight for civil rights and march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
…From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation. It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is, above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions, a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience. (The full transcript of Rabbi Prinz’s words can be found here.)
Each year during Passover we express our compassion for the Egyptians who suffered from the plagues and drowned in the Reed Sea — even those who knew no compassion for us. Talmud tells us that at the very moment of redemption, when the Israelites were safely on the far shore of the Sea and the waters were closing in on the Egyptians:
In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but God rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b)
We remove wine from our cup of joy as we recall the suffering of the Egyptians. Perhaps we should add a special ritual to honor those Egyptians who showed compassion and followed the lead of the righteous midwives.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman