This week we begin Sefer Shemot, referred to as “Exodus” although the more accurate translation is “Names”. Speaking of names, early in the parsha, the King of Egypt (whose name is Pharaoh) notes that the Jews are becoming quite numerous and decides to hatch a plan to prevent the Jews from (1:10) “becoming so big that they will wage war against us and leave our land.” Unfortunately for Pharaoh, despite the fact that he increases the workload on the Jews, they continue to multiply. So Pharaoh summons two Jewish midwives to him and tells them that they must (1:17) “Kill all male infants and let the female ones live.” The Torah tells us that the names of these two midwives are Shifrah and Puah. Rashi is quick to tell us that Shifrah is really Yocheved, the soon-to-be-mother of Moshe, and Puah is Miriam, Moshe’s soon-to-be-sister. But if that’s so, why are Yocheved and Miriam called by these Egyptian names? Don’t the Rabbis say that one of the merits which caused the Jews to be taken out of Egypt was that they did not change their names? Are we to infer from this that Yocheved and Miriam were the exceptions? And what about the fact that in Judaism, a name bespeaks the essence of a person? Which names bespeak who Yocheved and Miraim really are? Also, wouldn’t you think that in a parsha called “Shemot–names”, the Torah would be extra careful to use Hebrew names, since for a Jew, that is the only name that counts?
Perhaps we can address these questions if we understand what the names Shifrah and Puah mean. According to Rashi, the name Shifrah means “beautify”. In addition to birthing the babies, Yocheved would take the time to clean them and otherwise “beautify” them before presenting them to the mother. The name Puah means speech because Miriam would try to calm down the crying babies by speaking to them and make goo-goo noises. So these names really do bespeak the essence of Yocheved and Miriam in their caring for the Jewish newborns that they helped birth. But being midwives was only one aspect of Yocheved and Miriam, so why use those names over the preferred Hebrew ones?
Kli Yakar looks at a deeper meaning of the names Shifrah and Puah. He says that Puah does not only fit Miriam as a midwife. As we said, Puah denotes speech and Miriam was one of the seven prophetesses in Jewish history (the six others are Sarah, Devorah, Chana, Avigail, Chuldah and Esther). Miriam is most well-known for her prophecy that Yocheved would give birth to the savior of the Jewish people, namely Moshe. In fact, it was only because Miriam prophesied this that her parents (who had separated) reunited to have a child. Thus, Puah bespeaks the essence of who Miriam really was–a prophetess.
Yocheved is most well-known for a miracle done for her involving beauty, which is the meaning of the word “Shifrah”. When Miriam told the prophecy to her parents and urged them to get back together, Yocheved was 130 years old. Hashem performed a miracle and restored Yocheved’s beauty and youth to her so that she could have a child who would save the Jewish people. Thus, the name Shifrah also bespeaks who Yocheved was–a person righteous enough for Hashem to perform a miracle on her behalf.
But it goes even further than that. According to Kli Yakar, the real miracle here is that Pharaoh specifically called to these two women to implement his decree to kill all Jewish males. These women, whose names illustrate their significant roles in the birth of the Jewish savior (one by prophesying it and one by actually having the baby) could never kill Jewish male infants. On the other hand, had they not been so directly involved in Moshe’s being born, perhaps they would have killed the Jewish males in an effort to spare them a life of slavery and torture, which would have most probably ended up in their death anyway.
And for those who think it is a giant leap to assume that these women might have otherwise killed the infants to spare them a difficult future, consider the true story of Dr. Gisella Perl. Dr. Perl grew up in Sighet, Transylvania–a town made famous by another of its inhabitants–Eli Weisel. Dr. Perl got her medical degree in Berlin sometime in the mid 1920s. She writes in her book that her family was religiously observant. Dr. Perl had a thriving practice as a gynecologist in Sighet. She helped many women, thought to be infertile, conceive. In 1944, Dr. Perl was taken along with most Hungarian women, to Auschwitz. Very soon after her arrival, Mengele ordered Dr. Perl to bring him all the pregnant Hungarian women she could find. He promised medical attention and special care for these women. Dr. Perl brought him 250 women, pregnant in varying degrees. Mengele loaded all the women into a Red Cross truck and sent them directly to the gas chambers.
After this incident, Dr. Perl vowed that there would never again be a pregnant woman in Auschwitz. She took it upon herself to seek out the pregnant women who came to the camp and in the middle of the night (so as not to be detected) with her hands and dirty rags as her only instruments, she aborted over 1,000 women. Many of these women were among the women she had successfully treated in Sighet. Now, she was aborting them in Auschwitz. For the women who were too far along in their pregnancy, Dr. Perl delivered their babies and after saying a prayer over them, suffocated the infants. Dr. Perl felt that since the infant would die anyway, she might as well kill it to save the mother.
How could Yocheved and Miriam do differently? Because they believed so strongly that there would be an end to the slavery and torture and that their son/brother would be the savior. As a result, they were they able to keep the Jewish, male infants alive, knowing that those babies would have a pretty good chance of living normal lives. Perhaps this is why the Torah uses those other names for Yocheved and Miriam. Those names showed their belief in Hashem, which was the essence of these women. And now we can understand why Sefer Shemot is called “Exodus” as well as “Names”. As a result of Shifrah and Puah implementing the strong belief implied in their names, the Exodus become a reality.