Childbirth, perhaps more than any other life event, is an experience that demands a strong dose of faith and surrender. No matter how well planned or organized we may be, the inevitable moment will arise where the birthing woman must face the fact that there is a force at play that is larger than herself. As her baby moves down the narrow passage towards birth, and contractions rush through her body with the force of a tidal wave surging towards land, the birthing woman is presented with a sublime choice: to faithfully submit to its power, or to fight it tooth and nail. There is a precious body of women who for centuries have been intimately connected with this simple truth, and have continuously chosen faith. They are called midwives.
A midwife's role, among other things, is to encourage a birthing mother to "let go"
A midwife’s role, among other things, is to encourage a birthing mother to "let go" and allow herself to become a conduit for this great Force to flow through. Trust in the natural process of labor and in a woman’s body to birth normally and safely is the hallmark of midwifery care. Every culture and religion has their own words and metaphors to describe their reverence and awe of this process. But for Jewish midwives, this reverence stems from an understanding that birth is G‑dly in nature. Their faith in birth is inexorably bound with their faith in G‑d.
We have an historical precedent for the midwife’s inherent faith in G‑d in the Torah portion, Shemot, where we are introduced to two of the most powerful Jewish leaders in our history, both extremely faithful and righteous women. They are our first recorded midwives, Shifra and Puah.
They practiced their trade during a time where the very existence of the Jewish people was hanging by a delicate thread. Pharaoh’s astrologers had predicted that a Jewish male would rise amongst the Hebrews and overtake his throne. In a paranoid attempt to curtail the Jewish birth rate, he ordered all Jewish men into backbreaking slave labor (Ibn Ezra). But when the Jews continued to multiply, Pharaoh, driven by evil and desperation, commanded Shifra and Puah to kill all newborn Jewish boys.
"The midwives, however, feared G‑d; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live." (Exodus 1:17)
Pharaoh didn’t count on the midwives defiance or their faith in G‑d. Despite the danger of defying Pharaoh’s command, Shifra and Puah decided to continue their holy calling. With whole-hearted faith in the Creator, they swam against a very strong and dangerous political tide, fully knowing that disobedience of Pharaoh’s decree meant death for them. But their fear of G‑d far surpassed their fear of a human king.
They helped to nurture and sustain all the newborn babies
From then on, not only did Shifra and Puah help birth the Jewish women, but they helped to nurture and sustain all the newborn babies. Before each birth they prayed to G‑d to assist the Jewish women to birth quickly and safely and they prayed for the health and well being of all the babies under their care. The Midrash states that Shifra and Puah actually became G‑d’s partners in creation, granting life to the Jewish children (Shemot Rabba 1:19).
"G‑d bestowed goodness upon the midwives, and the people multiplied and became very strong. It was because the midwives feared God, that He made houses for them." (Exodus 1:20-21)
The "Houses" G‑d made for Shifra and Puah were in fact dynasties born through them. Our Sages explain that Shifra was a pseudonym for Jochebed, and Puah was another name for Miriam. The name "Shifra" comes from the Hebrew word "meshaperet" which means "to beautify", and/or "to swaddle and clean" (i.e. a baby). Miriam was called Puah, from the Hebrew verb "Po’ah" that means "cry, coo or groan" because of the way she soothed and cooed the crying newborn infants.
Jochebed was blessed to give birth not only to her daughter Miriam, but also to Moses and Aaron. Through Jochebed (Shifra), a nation of priests was born. And Miriam (Puah) was blessed to mother the Royal dynasty, the "House of David."
There is something about being present at a birth… about standing at the threshold between born and unborn that transforms a person. Perhaps it is because of their trade that Shifra and Puah developed such faith in their conviction. Perhaps it was because they witnessed the miracle of life unfold before their eyes that they found the strength to face the challenge to kill or be killed… and overcome it with power and grace.
Shifra and Puah never entertained the idea of fighting G‑d’s will. Instead, they fought for G‑d’s will. And they won. This strength has been handed down all the way from our ancestral midwives to the modern midwives of today. May G‑d bless them to continue in the paths of Shifra and Puah, fearing G‑d, not man, and through their faith in the G‑dliness of birth, bless them to be His partners in creation.