This week, Lauviticus welcomes you to the Second of the Five Books,
known to us as Exodus, but in Hebrew known as The Book of Names. Exodus/Shemot takes us beyond the primal myths of Genesis into the socio-political reality of oppression, racism, poverty, human suffering and human hope, and ultimately towards the creation of a community bound by faith, ritual, and order.
The seed of this transformation is located in the prophetic myth of Moses, and in this week’s telling of his heroic and humble beginning. His birth and that of countless other babies are described as a “swarming” with its implication of a superabundant force. In the face of this prolific fertility, Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews and issues an edict sentencing infant boys to death. Initially he employs the midwives as his instrument of enforcement, but they do not comply and when confronted, reply with the verse we focus on this week:

The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like
the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous. Before the midwife can
come to them, they have given birth.” Exodus 1:19. Etz Chayim Translation

The Hebrew word in question here is CHAYOT – translated as either
VIGORUOUS or LIVELY (King James Bible), EXPERTS (Artscroll) or AMINALS
(Richard Friedman’s translation)
All these translations are valid, though seeing the women as animals who do not need midwives for birthing is perhaps the most challenging. Translating chayot as “animals” may be the best way the midwives know to explain to Pharaoh that their hands are tied. You know these Hebrew women, they are like animals. Cover story? Or racial slur?
But another way to read this verse is that the Hebrew women are
ALIVE – full of life, zest, fight and determination. They are not degraded by
their circumstances but powerful in their sacred duty of birthing the
future. (Anyone seen the recent film ‘Children of Men’? see it for a
powerful reminder of the awe-some and awe-full experience of birth.)
The classic Aramaic translator, knows as the Pseudo-Jonathan, took
this approach as well. In his rendition of Exodus 1:19 he translates
CHAYOT in a way that makes the mothers seems as heroines, not victims:

“The Jewish women are not as the Egyptian, for they are sturdy and
wise-minded: before the midwife comes to them they lift up their eyes
in prayer, supplicating mercy before their Father who is in heaven,
who hears the voice of their prayer, and at once they are heard, and
bring forth, and are delivered in peace.”

And so Lauviticus would like to suggest: ‘The Hebrew Women are not like their governing Egyptian sisters – for they are full of LIFE; The Divine is their midwife.’
What, in your life, is so full of life and vitality, that against all
odds, will just burst out and change the world?
Shabbat shalom!

12. Vayechi
14. Va’era

Verse per Verse

The WEEKLY STORAH (2006-2007), presenting you with an EZ pass into Judeo-Biblical Knowledge, one verse at a time. Each week offers a new entry, composed by Lauviticus, a consortium of storah scribes, highlighting a single verse or word from the weekly installment of the Torah, focusing on issues of translation and contemporary relevance.

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