Parashat Shemot

Exodus 1:1–6:1

December 25, 2010 / 18 Tevet 5771

This week's commentary was written by Dr. Walter Herzberg, assistant professor of Bible and Professional and Pastoral Skills, JTS


Pharaoh instructs the midwives to kill the male children of the Hebrew women they deliver. Amazingly, the midwives do not obey Pharaoh's orders. As a result, we read the following in Exodus 1:20–21:

20 God did good to the midwives
And the people increased and became very vast
21 And it was since the midwives feared God
That He/he made them houses/households

Question: What exactly was the good that God did for the midwives? This question has engaged the commentators throughout the generations.

By simply examining a few interpretations of various commentators, we shall attempt to consider the implied or sometimes explicit theology that ensues from their comments—all based on their consideration of the same textual/literary question(s).

Two other textual questions related to verses 20 and 21 above must be kept in mind before we proceed. Who is the antecedent of the pronoun he in the phrase "he made them houses"? (Most commentators suggest God, though more than a few suggest Pharaoh). And finally, are the houses he made literal houses, or are they meant to be understood metaphorically?

Rashi (1040–1105, France), asks our question: "What was the good" and answers that the reward is stated in the following verse (Exodus 1:21): that God made them [metaphorical] houses of the priesthood, levites and royalty. In other words, God established households or families for them. The implied theology of Rashi's comment is articulated by U. Cassuto (1883–1951, Italy, Israel): that God rewarded the midwives measure for measure ("middah keneged middah"), as is His custom. The midwives save the Hebrew children and families, so God provides them with their own distinguished families as a reward.

Many commentators find fault with Rashi's skipping to verse 21 in order to find the good, insisting instead that the good must be found in verse 20 itself: "the people increased and became very vast." Yitzhaq Caro (Toledot Yitzhaq, 1458–1535, Spain) states that the fact that the people increased so greatly was the midwives' reward. It was good for business! In other words, the more children being born, the busier the midwives would be. The implied theology of his comment may be that God will reward us with a decent livelihood if we are deserving (Jews have been praying for parnasah, a respectable livelihood, for centuries).

Zalman Sorotzkin (Oznayim LaTorah, 1881–1966, Lithuania, Jerusalem) like Caro, also suggests that the reward is to be found in verse 20: "the people increased and became very vast." For him, the reward is absolutely not a material reward, but rather the intrinsic reward of the selfless act. He explicitly articulates the theology by quoting the rabbis who say sekhar mitzvah, mitzvah: the reward of performing God's mitzvah or will is the mitzvah or the act itself. "What greater reward for the midwives who endangered their lives to save the children than to see the children flourishing—what more do they need?!"

Isaac Abarbanel (1437–1508, Lisbon) also looks for the good in verse 20, but he suggests, along with his other interpretations, that the good that God did for the midwives is found in the statement itself; that "God did good to the midwives," meaning God made the midwives good. According to Abarbanel, the midwives were Egyptian and not Hebrews (as Rashi interprets).The reason that Egyptian midwives disobeyed their own king and saved the Hebrew children was a result of God's intervention, His causing the midwives to be "righteous in their hearts." The implied theology of Abarbanel's comment is, perhaps, that there is hope that God can influence our enemies to change their attitude—and that there is hope for all of us, both Gentile and Jew, that God can move our hearts to act righteously.

Yakov Zvi Meklenburg (Haketav Vehaqqabbalah, 1785–1865, Germany, Eastern Europe), like Rashi, notes that the reward of the midwives is to be found in the following verse, in the phrase "He made them houses." Meklenburg also understands houses metaphorically, but suggests that houses in the Bible can be emblematic of honor and greatness, not families. But he makes note of the ambiguous nature of the pronoun he in the phrase "He made them houses," aware that other commentators insist that he is Pharaoh. Meklenburg therefore opines that because of God's goodness not only did Pharaoh refrain from punishing the midwives who disobeyed his orders, but "he made them houses," meaning that he set them free and accorded them honor. Meklenburg continues that the pronoun he is ambiguous because it refers to both God and Pharaoh simultaneously—on the surface Pharaoh set them free, but the one who really set them free was God. The implied theology of his comments may be that we ought to sensitize ourselves to God's hand and Providence working behind the scenes, through people.

Finally, Mordekhai Yosef Lainer (Mei Hashiloakh, 1801–1854, Isbitza, Poland) also understands the reward as "he made them houses," but surprises us with an unexpected metaphorical interpretation of houses. He links the reward of houses at the end of the verse 21 to the beginning of the verse "since the midwives feared God, He made them houses." Lainer notes that when people fear man there is no peace of mind (yishuv hadaat). Fearing God, on the other hand, does provide one with a sense of equanimity, and peace of mind. Since the midwives feared God, they therefore did not fear disobeying Pharaoh's command: a house, a home, says Lainer, is emblematic of a sense of security and peace of mind. The implied theology may be that true fear of God can eliminate or significantly diminish our fear of man.

The comments above were intended to demonstrate a three-stage methodology whereby one identifies a textual problem in the Torah text, then examines the responses of various commentators to the textual question, and finally attempts to derive meaning from the comments. The methodology encourages readers to seriously engage with the Torah text through a close reading, to become aware of the multivalent nature of the text by examining many different interpretations of the textual question at hand, and to have the opportunity to consider the possibility of many personally relevant issues that may ensue from this intimate engagement with the Torah text.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.