If one were to look up the word “chutzpah” in the dictionary, you’d most likely find something to the tune of “audacity” or “impudence.” We don’t often think of chutzpah as a good or praiseworthy thing. When a child is out of line or “chutzpadic”, parents will most likely not revel in their brazenness. These feelings don’t necessarily subside as one ages. Conversely, there are also times when one’s chutzpah can be have positive dividends. In the Purim story, without Esther marching unannounced into Achashverosh’s chamber, where would the Jewish people be today? Even before that brave act of heroism, there is a staunchly “chutzpadic” episode in Parshas Shemos, one that is amplified by carefully reading the text itself.
Parshas Shemos is a “busy” parsha. There is so much going on, so many important events that are found among the pesukim. Gone are the days of peace and tranquility for Bnai Yisrael in Egypt. There is a new ruler, who has a different approach in regard to the ever expanding Jewish people. As they begin to outnumber the Egyptians and as the king’s attempts to outsmart the Jews fails to stunt their tremendous growth, he summons Shifra and Puah, two Jewish midwives, and gives them a horrifying task. All male Jewish babies are to be put to death, at their hands. For individuals charged with helping bring life into the world, their new job is to snuff it out.
Rashi explains that Shifra and Puah were not their actual names, but nicknames given to Yocheved and Miriam for their roles in caring for children. Shifra, from the word “meshaperet,” because she would clean the children and make them look nice for their mothers. Puah, from the word “poeh,” because she would soothe the babies when they cried. The Torah tells us that these midwives were God-fearing and were not keen on following through with the will of Paro. The pasuk says “vatechayena es hayeladim.” Not only did the midwives not kill the baby boys that were born, they enabled them to live. Despite the direct decree given to them by the most powerful individual around, Shifra and Puah actually took steps to ensure their survival.
Disobeying a direct order from the highest office is no small feat. It is the epitome of chutzpah. When someone acts brash with us, we can usually brush it off and go about our business. It’s almost certain that if we were in a unique position of power, the behavior exhibited from the subject in question would’ve been different. Nevertheless, Shifra and Puah knew what they were doing. There was no misunderstanding.
To be fair, despite the pasuk mentioning that the midwives had a fear of God, they could’ve simply done nothing. They could have helped the women give birth and simply not cared for the children as they normally had done, or taken them away and hid them without feeding them. Technically, the mandate of Paro would’ve been fulfilled passively, as the babies would’ve eventually died. Yet, Rashi continues that Shifra and Puah acutally fed the children and gave them water, with complete disregard for the explicit wishes of Paro. This insubordination could’ve led to severe ramifications for these holy women. Yet, rather than put them to death, Paro angrily wanted to know why they had not acted as he wished. They explained that the Jewish women are not like the Egyptian women when giving birth.
For their actions, the Torah tells us that the midwives were blessed with “batim,” houses of Kohanim, Leviim, and Malchus descending from them. In turn, the Jewish people were blessed to survive that heinous decree, among the others from Paro. It is through their chutzpah that Klal Yisrael are here today.