Seeing The Broader Picture

The differences between the midwives' encounter with Pharaoh and the officers' and taskmasters' encounter teach us to appreciate the context of biblical narratives.

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The royal decree put the Jewish officers in a position similar to that of the midwives; they are expected to inflict a terrible punishment on their brethren. In fact, when the overburdened slaves fail to meet the quotas of bricks set for them, it's the officers who endure lashes for not adequately motivating them.

Like the midwives, the officers advocate on behalf of the people. But while the midwives do so covertly by neglecting to enforce Pharaoh's decree, the officers protest openly, actually bringing their and the slaves' complaint to the throne of Pharaoh himself: "There is no straw given unto thy servants, and they [the taskmasters] say to us, 'Make brick,' and behold, thy servants are beaten, but the fault is in thine own people'" (Exodus 5:16). However, their pleas fall on deaf ears, as Pharaoh refuses to retract his edict, and the Jews still must fetch their own straw to build bricks.

In comparing the episodes of the midwives and the officers, the question emerges, why is no divine reward mentioned for the officers? While the Torah explicitly states that God approves of the midwives' actions and blesses them with families of their own, no similar statement appears in the officers' case.

Further, while the Torah doesn't mention any royal punishment inflicted on the midwives for ignoring Pharaoh's orders, the officers suffer whippings on behalf of the slaves they supervise. Don't such sacrifices merit a reward from heaven?

Rashi comments that the officers in fact were rewarded. He says that when the Jews left slavery, it was these same officers who comprised the Sanhedrin, the great court, and thus who shared in some of the divine inspiration that Moses himself had received. According to Rashi, this privilege was due to the compassion and sacrifice that they'd demonstrated in Egypt.

Reward for the Officers

While Rashi's commentary may satisfy our concern for the welfare of the officers, the question remains: why does the Torah record a reward for the midwives, but not for the officers?

The answer is based on understanding the Torah's purpose in relating each of these stories. In the episode of the midwives, Pharaoh is running scared. Seeing that the Jews are multiplying rapidly, he fears for his country's safety. He enslaves the Jews, and his decree is one of his attempts to decrease their numbers. However, God has other plans: "And as they [the Egyptians] would afflict them [the Jews], they [the Jews] would continue to multiply and spread out" (Exodus 1:12).

Fullfilling Their Destiny

No matter what tactic Pharaoh tries, the Jews continue their destined transition from family to nation. Thus, when the verse records the reward given to the midwives--they themselves merit families--it is part and parcel of the Torah's overall narrative thread, i.e., that the Jews continue to multiply.

This contrasts with the episode of the officers. Earlier in the parashah, God appears to Moses, and commands him to go to Egypt and to lead the Jews to freedom. However, God warns Moses that, as part of the divine plan, Pharaoh will be stubborn, and refuse to free the people.

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Yossi Ziffer works in the interactive services department of UJA-Federation of New York.