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Civil Disobedience and Passover, by Rabbi Maurice Harris

There’s something we don’t talk about enough when we tell the Passover story, and that is civil disobedience—in particular, the civil disobedience of five women who enabled Moses to survive his infancy.

It began when Pharaoh ordered the midwives of the Hebrew slaves to murder all the male Jewish babies they delivered. The midwives, led by Shifra and Puah, refused to do it. When summoned by Pharaoh to explain their apparent insubordination, Shifra and Puah cleverly appealed to his racism. They told Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are like animals, giving birth too quickly for the midwives to arrive in time to intervene. With this defiant act of conscience, Shifra and Puah didn’t know that they were planting the seeds for a chain of events that would defeat the mightiest empire on earth and free a people from centuries of slavery.

As we know, next Pharaoh ordered that all newborn Hebrew boys be taken from their parents and drowned in the Nile. When baby Moses is born, his mother, Yokheved, hides him for three months. But then, unable to keep his existence secret any longer, she commits the second act of civil disobedience recorded in Exodus. Working with her daughter, Miriam, she places Moses in a water-tight basket and sets the baby adrift on the Nile.

The basket floats past Pharaoh’s palace. There, Pharaoh’s daughter sees the basket. As the Torah describes the moment: “And she opened it, and saw the child; and look—a boy crying. And she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.’”[1] Her compassion leads her to commit the third act of civil disobedience in the Exodus story. The daughter of Pharaoh himself keeps the child alive.

As Reverend John Bell writes, “We discover that [Moses] owes a lot to women. He would not be alive had five women not defied male authority to allow him to exist. The women are two midwives, his mother, his sister and Pharaoh’s daughter.”[2] May this Passover season be illuminated by the compassion and courage of these women, now and always.

[1] Exod 2:6, from Everett Fox’s translation in The Five Books of Moses: The Schocken Bible, Volume 1, A New English Translation with Commentary and Notes. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.

[2] Bell, Rev. John. “Moses.” No pages. Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/history/moses_1.shtml#h5.


Rabbi Maurice Harris is a writer and teacher living in Eugene, Oregon. This entry was based on portions of his new book, Moses: A Stranger among Us, from Wipf and Stock Publishers. For a deeper look into the book, click here.


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