Anna Batler blogs about faith and feminism at http://sotah.net/. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anna Batler.
A short meditation on identity in Parshat Shemot.
First, there are the midwives. The text tells us their names – Shifra and Puah, but the problem is that we do not know what to make of those names. They never appear again – their lineage is unknown. Pharaoh tells the midwives to kill Jewish boys as they are born. Heroically, they resist Pharaoh, protect their clients, and lie to the ruler. There is a debate as to their identity – the text refers to them as hameyaldot ha’ivriyot – a phrase that can be translated as either Jewish midwives or midwives to the Jews. According to Rashi, Shifra and Puah are Yochebad and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moshe – Jewish midwives. According to the Abarbenel, a contemporary of Rashi, Shifra and Puah are righteous Egyptian women – midwives to the Jews. Shamot 1:15
The subject of identity is also addressed when Moshe asks God at the burning bush, “And they [Jews] say to me what is his name, what shall I say to them?” God famously answers “I shall be what I shall be.” Ehyeh asher ehyeh. Exodus 3:14.
There are two main schools of thought on how this can be interpreted.
1) The Septuagint and Philo, influenced by Greek thought, interpreted this Hebrew phrase to mean “I am the BEING” or more simply “I am” God is existence.
2) Medieval Scholars, Rashi among them, understand this phrase not as a statement of God’s essential “being-ness” – but of God’s essential “doing-ness.” “I shall be with them during their troubles.” Buber captures a sense of doing-ness when he translates the phrase to mean “As the one who will always be there, so shall I be present in every-time.”
Moshe, as evidenced in his question to God, is constantly concerned with identity. On his first encounter with the outside world, he immediately places all his allegiances with the Jews and kills an Egyptian overseer. He divides the world into who is his brother and who is not his brother – even though he has a foot in both cultures. One would expect him to have a more complicated view of Egyptians and Jews. Moshe wants to place God in that same paradigm – he wants to learn God’s name. God resists.
In contrast, the narrative gives the midwives specific names, but their names stand alone. They are ordinary women – it is their heroic actions that form their identity. They exceed their subject positions, moving beyond their names, to their actions, risking personal and national safety for justices.
I cannot help but wonder how the exodus story would have been different, if instead of Moshe, it was Shifra and Pauh who lead the Jews out of Egypt.