Parshas Shemos starts us off on the journey of Yaakov’s children becoming the Bnei Yisrael, God’s chosen people. The next few parshahs go through the birth pains of our nation as we were enslaved in Egypt, and our subsequent triumph as we left amongst God’s great miracles. As this week’s parshah opens, Paroh has enslaved the Jewish People and a new leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, was about to emerge.
Paroh’s astronomers had foreseen that in the near future, a Jewish boy would be born who would take Bnei Yisrael out of slavery. Paroh quickly issued a decree that all Jewish boys should be killed immediately upon birth. He instructed two Jewish midwives, named Shifra and Puah, to oversee this decree. However, they did not listen to Paroh, and let the boys live. Rashi tells us that these two women were actually Yocheved and Miriam, Moshe’s mother and sister! He brings the Gemarah in Sotah (11b) which explains that Yocheved was known as Shifra since she cleaned the baby after birth. The word for cleaning is “משפרת”, hence the name Shifra. Miriam, was known as Puah since she would sooth the newborn baby with cooing sounds, such as, “puu, puu”.
The Kli Yakar asks two simple questions on this gemarah. First of all, how does the gemarah know that Yocheved was Shifra and Miriam was Puah? Maybe it was the opposite? Secondly, we know both of these people from their connection to Moshe so why does the pasuk introduce them via these secondary names?
He explains that we know Miriam was a prophetess and as Rashi explains in Parshas Va’eira, the root of the Hebrew word for prophecy, “נבואה”, also means to speak. So Miriam was Puah, the one who would speak to the babies. The main prophecy that Miriam had, according to the gemarah in Megillah (14a), was that her mother, Yocheved, would give birth to the eventual savior of Bnei Yisrael. Yocheved, was now 130 years old when she stood in front of Paroh, way past the age where she could have children. However, Hashem returned her “לשופרה”, to the days of her “splendor” and she was able to give birth to Moshe. Therefore, she was known as Shifra.
When Paroh called these two midwives in, he wanted them to make sure the baby who would save Bnei Yisrael would never be born. Little did he know that he was talking to the two people who would be directly responsible for that leader’s birth! Yocheved obviously, as she was Moshe’s mother, but Miriam was very much a part as well. When Paroh’s decree came out, Yocheved’s husband and Miriam’s father, Amram, decided to separate from his wife to prevent the death of any future children. Miriam, knowing the prophecy she had received, convinced her father to return by arguing that Paroh had issued a decree only on boys while Amram had decreed also on girls! He returned to Yocheved and she gave birth to Moshe.
This is why the pasuk refers to Yocheved and Miriam as Shifra and Puah here. It is showing how futile Paroh’s attempt to prevent Moshe’s birth was, that he was asking for help from the very people responsible for his birth!
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