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Parashat Shemot: The Greatest Praise of All

The Torah in Parashat Shemot tells of the heroism of the midwives of Beneh Yisrael, who defied Pharaoh’s edict ordering them to kill all newborn boys among the nation. These midwives are identified by the names "Shifra" and "Pu’a," but the Gemara teaches that in truth, these women were none other than Yochebed and Miriam – the mother and sister of Moshe Rabbenu. They were given these names, the Rabbis explain, in commemoration of their efforts on behalf of the babies they delivered. Not only did they refuse to kill the infants as Pharaoh had ordered, but they did just the opposite – they helped the newborns in any way they could. The name "Shifra," which means "beautiful," alludes to the midwives’ work to make the infants healthy and good-looking, and the name "Pu’a" refers to the cooing sound which the midwives made in order to calm the babies and make them happy.

It might seem strange, at first glance, that the Torah chose to refer to Yochebed and Miriam by these names. After all, according to tradition, these women were great spiritual figures, who reached the level of prophecy. A person is eligible for prophecy only after achieving outstanding spiritual heights. If Yochebed and Miriam experienced prophecy, then by definition, they were exceptional spiritual giants. Why, then, would the Torah give them names that commemorated their efforts on behalf of Beneh Yisrael’s newborn babies? The name Shifra and Pu’a allude to things like administering medicine, changing diapers, rocking babies to sleep, and playing with them to keep them relaxed and happy. Why does the Torah choose to refer to Shifra and Pu’a specifically by pointing to these menial tasks, if they were outstanding spiritual figures? Is this not demeaning to women of such stature?

The answer, quite simply, is that no, this is not demeaning at all. The greatest praise that can be given is that somebody cared for and raised children. Whereas modern society belittles the value and importance of motherhood, of devoting oneself to raising and educating children, Judaism regards it as the greatest of all undertakings. The Torah specifically refers to Yochebed and Miriam by these names because their efforts on behalf of the infants of Beneh Yisrael are even more precious than their great achievements as prophets.

We must never find it demeaning to devote time and energy to the sacred task of caring for children. Tasks which contemporary society finds demeaning, such as preparing food, dressing and bathing children, playing with them, changing diapers, and everything else that goes into raising happy, healthy and confident children, are all great achievements. For Jews, the greatest praise is that they succeeded in this role – in the role of raising and caring for their children and preparing the next generation of Torah Jews.

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