We are introduced, in this week portion, to the first large-scale persecutor of the Jews in Pharaoh’s extermination policies of throwing Hebrew babies into the Nile.
At the same time, the Torah informs us of gentiles who refused to obey such orders.
Pharaoh instructs women who are called Hameyaldot Ha’Ivriyot – the Hebrew Midwives to carry out his plans. They are called Shifrah and Puah. Whilst Rashi, following the Midrash, identifies these women as Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses, other sources disagree. ‘Hebrew Midwives’ could mean Midwives who are Hebrews, or Midwives to the Hebrews. The first century historian, Josephus, understood them to be Egyptian women. The same ideas is expressed by Abarbanel (fifteenth century) and Shadal (nineteenth century.) As Shadal expresses it: could Pharaoh realistically have expected Hebrew women to murder their won people’s children?
The most famous person to ignore Pharaoh’s orders is, of course, his daughter. She defies her father in adopting Moses in full knowledge that he is a Hebrew.
Another righteous gentile in the sidra emerges from a passage in the Aggadah. When Moses flees Egypt for his life when he is arraigned for killing an Egyptian, he escapes to Midian. Of all the possible locations for refuge, why did he choose Midian?
The Leviyat Chein (eighteenth century) argues that it was precisely Midian, where Jethro was the ruler that would have been Moses’ preferred destination. The Talmud (Sotah 11a) mentions that when Pharaoh was considering his ’migrants problem’ – what to do with the very large number of Hebrews who were now living in his country, he called in three senior figures and asked their advice: Bilaam, Job and Jethro. It was Bilaam who devised the plan of throwing the babies into the river. As a punishment, he is later killed. Job, offered no objection. For this, says the Talmud, he underwent suffering. It was Jethro who protested the action and left Egypt wanting nothing to do with the persecution. For this reason, explains the Leviyat Chen, Moses knew that when he escaped to Midian he could count on the protection of Jethro and not be returned to Egypt as a runaway.
Although the Hebrews had to endure terrible suffering at the hands of the Egyptians, the Torah is at pains to point out that not all gentiles behaved in this way. There were notable individuals who displayed moral courage and had a significant influence on the course of our history.