A ‘Your Mother’s Guidance’ post by Rebecca Masinter
The book of Genesis focuses on the families of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. In contrast, Exodus is the book of the formation of the Jewish nation. Surprisingly, Exodus, the book of the nation, begins with— families! We are told (Exodus 1:2) that Jacob’s sons came down to Egypt, each man with his household.
The book of the formation of the Jewish people is also the only book that ends with families. The final verse includes the words, “Beis Yisrael” the families of Israel, whereas the remaining books of the Torah end with the words “Bnei Yisrael”, the children of Israel. Exodus begins with families and ends with families.
This is a profound lesson and it is a theme that is repeated over and over as the Jewish nation is formed. The people exists only as an outgrowth of the family. To build a nation, we must begin and end with the family. More specifically, not just with a family, but with a wife and mother. When the beginning of Exodus describes that Jacob’s children came with their households, ancient Jewish wisdom tells us, “That is his wife.” The nation begins when the tribes come to Egypt with their wives. The women, the builders of the families, play an outsized role in the beginning of Exodus as the Jewish nation begins to form.
The first women mentioned are the Jewish midwives, Shifra and Puah. Interestingly, this is the only time in the Torah these women are called by these names. Elsewhere, their true names are given, Yocheved (Jochebed) and Miriam, but here, in our first introduction to them, they are Shifra and Puah. What do those names mean? Shifra comes from the word “l’sha-per” to beautify, and Puah is a term that means vocalizing or speaking. We are told that these women were called these names because of the way they cared for the Jewish infants: Shifra would beautify the Jewish babies, washing them, rubbing oil into their skin, and Puah would coo or murmur soothing words to the babies.
It’s good to remember that Yocheved was the wife of Amram, the leader of the Jewish nation. Surely she was an exemplary woman and leader in her own right. Miriam spent the rest of her life as a leader of the Jewish nation and as a prophetess. These women had important roles and there are other talents of theirs by which they could have been known aside from their role as nurturers of Jewish babies. Yet, we know them first as Shifra and Puah, women who wash and sing to babies.
I think that one lesson we can all take from these verses is very simple. We live in a mixed-up world, where things of lesser importance seem vital, and truly vital and significant jobs seem trivial. Exodus tells us that the foundation of the Jewish nation doesn’t rest on its synagogues, schools, charity organizations, fundraisers, or kosher grocers, but on each individual family. And each family rests on the foundation of the woman of that home.
What does that woman do that is so valuable? Maybe Shifra and Puah are here to remind us that it isn’t the big, glorious projects as much as the small, mundane acts of loving, caring, and nurturing. Brushing our kids’ teeth and hair, singing songs, telling stories, and nursery rhymes to them. We sometimes get confused. Why should I sit on the couch and read them a story when they can watch an adorable animated version on my phone? Then I can be doing something really important at the same time. No! Exodus is here to remind us that it is each small moment, each seemingly trivial act that women and mothers do that is at the foundation of the entire nation. We think it is small, but really, each small act of care and love in a family builds our entire people.