And the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other Puah. And he said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth-stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live!” But the midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt told them; they let the boys live. (Shemot 1:15-17)
She goes about her task
adeptly, with tender smile
and gentle hands,
ardent activist, fiery
in her beliefs;
her voice cries out
invoking heaven to witness.
Rabbi Tsvi-Hirsch of Riminov* describes two prototypes of righteous people. The first, he says, is like Shifra, (which means “beauty” or “grace”) and who serves the Creator in peaceful, pleasant ways with barely palpable outward show. The second he likens to Puah, (whose name is derived from a root meaning to cry out as in Isaiah 42:14). This righteous person, fired up with ardor, serves God passionately, crying out loudly, her voice splitting the heavens.
Maybe both are needed to restore the world and bring forth a new era. Or perhaps one person can embody both aspects as the circumstances dictate.
Rashi teaches that Shifrah and Puah were actually Jocheved and Miriam respectively. (Another view suggests it was Jocheved and Elisheva (her daughter-in-law)). Rashi, citing the Talmud (Sotah 11b), associates the name Shifra with the word “meshaperet – meaning to improve.” He derives from this that Shifra bestowed care on the new baby benefiting its physical condition (literally straightening its limbs). Rashi explains that the name Puah, from the word to cry aloud as cited above, derives from her practice of speaking and crooning to the baby to soothe it when it was crying. The Torah continues that the midwives disobeyed Pharaoh and saved the children, “Vatechayena et hayeladim” which Rashi interprets to mean that not only did they save the children, but they kept them alive by nourishing them with food.
*Rabbi Tzvi-Hirsh ben R’ Yehudah Leib HaKohen of Riminov (1778-1847). He was orphaned of both parents at age ten. He was taken in by his uncle who was too poor to support him, so he became a tailor’s apprentice, but dreamed of attaching himself to a great Tsaddik. So he gathered his meager savings and travelled to the town of Pristik. After wandering around the town, he arrived at the home of R’ Menachem Mendel of Riminov who was then living in Pristik. He began to work there doing menial tasks and eventually became the Rebbe’s attendant. When the Rebbe died, R’ Tsvi-Hirsch became a disciple of R’ Naftali-Tsvi who was R’ Menachem Mendel’s successor. On his death, 12 years later, R’ Tzvi-Hirsh became the Rebbe of Riminov. He had a reputation as a miracle worker. Some of his teachings are collected in Mevasser Tov and in Be’erot HaMayim.