SHIFRA AND PU’AH – AHEAD OF HIPPOCRATES
December 27, 2018
19 Tevet 5779
Pharaoh not only enslaved the Israelites, he also issued the brutal edict to cast every Israelite male newborn into the Nile. The Torah records the bravery and the resolve of two women, Shifra and Pu’ah, who are either Hebrew midwives or, more probably, Egyptians who served in the Israelite community. They categorically refused to carry out Pharaoh’s edict, and in the Torah’s words, “The midwives fearing God did not do as the king of Egypt had told themand they let the boys live” (Exodus 1 17).
When Pharaoh confronted them with their disobedience, Shifra and Pu’ah responded that the Israelite women, blessed with great determination, managed to give birth by themselves. Pharaoh surprisingly accepted their excuse and did not punish them. They clearly feared God and their loyalty to their ideals trumped Pharaoh’s royal decree. They were committed to help bring new life into the world and not to end it.
Shifra and Pu’ah are poster children for all who have the courage and the resolve to defy immoral orders from their superiors and even the State. Following World War II, at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi officials, the defendants argued that they should not be held guilty for following the orders and directives of their government leaders. Loyalty to their State had to take precedence over any moral qualms they may have had. The Court rejected this defense of crimes that that we now know as genocide.
To this very day, although we accept this as a given, it still requires great courage, whether in the Armed Forces or in other areas of life, to invoke the principle of not following immoral orders. How much more have Shifra and Pu’ah earned our admiration for their courage in defying the mighty Egyptian ruler. Their bravery remains an inspiration to this very day.
There is, however, another dimension to their resolve. They preceded by millennia the Hippocratic Oath that calls upon medical practitioners to accept and honor the commitment to do their utmost to heal and to preserve life. Maimonides, the great medieval Torah scholar and physician, summarized in his oath the responsibility of the healing profession, “never to see in the patient anyone but a fellow creature in pain.” Hospitals in democratic societies honor this principle to care for all who cross their transoms, regardless of religion, ethnic origin, or nationality. Shifra and Pu’ah incorporated this total commitment to their patients.
Israeli hospitals are an amazing venue in which this commitment to universal healing is evident in every floor,every examining room and every ward. Haredim, in their traditional garb of black suits and long skirts, sit adjacent to Arab patients with women in their burqas and hajibs. They all wait patiently for their turn.
Some years ago, the principle of looking past the identity of patients dramatically unfolded. Following a terrorist act, a severely wounded terrorist and an Israeli soldier were brought to the Hadassah Hospital emergency room.
Adhering to accepted medical procedures, the doctors determined the terrorist needed immediate attention and proceeded to care for him first. Israeli family members, arriving at the hospital, understandably complained about the preferential treatment accorded to a murderous terrorist. They were simply told of the hospital policy to treat the patients in greatest danger first. In this case, following his recovery, the terrorist would be placed in the custody of the legal authorities who would ultimately determine his guilt and subsequent punishment.
Shifra and Pu’ah were remarkable human beings. They demonstrated extraordinary personal courage in defying Pharaoh’s evil edict. They were and continue to be models of caregivers who accept the responsibility to assure health and the privilege to preserve life. Their willingness to disobey Pharaoh to uphold their ideals makes them remarkable profiles in courage that challenges us all.
From the holy city of Jerusalem, my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.
Rabbi Arnold M Goodman
*At the start of the new year in the Gregorian Calendar it’s appropriate to extend to one another best wishes for good health, good tidings, much simcha and the fulfillment of the fondest wishes of our hearts.