The Book of Shemos teaches us about a rough beginning for the Jews – not just the adults, but also the children of Israel. The Jewish people went through a population explosion after their arrival in Egypt – going from seventy small families into a nation of millions over a short span of time. They grew so much that the Egyptians despaired of becoming a minority in their own country. There were Jews everywhere.
The Pharaoh was worried that a war would erupt, the Jewish people would join the enemies of Egypt and drive the Egyptians from their own homeland. So, the Pharaoh afflicted and tortured the Jewish people. As a part of his solution to the Jewish problem, he ordered that all baby boys be killed, and the Jewish girls be raised in Egyptian culture. Then, there would not be a next generation and the Jewish people would disappear.
If one reads the midrashim, you would think that you were reading a history of the Holocaust. Just as the Nazis often made the Jews do their dirty work, so, too, the Egyptians were the early version of the Nazis. Reminiscent of the Nazis using kapos to torture the Jews, the Pharaoh ordered two Jewish midwives to assist him in his solution to the Jewish problem. However, the Pharaoh did not realize with whom he was dealing. The two midwives, Shifra and Puah, were actually Yocheved and Miriam. Yocheved was the daughter of Levi, granddaughter of Yaakov and eventual mother of Moshe. Miriam was Yocheved’s daughter, the older sister of Aharon and Moshe. Yocheved and Miriam had no intention of fulfilling Pharaoh’s decrees. In fact, they did the opposite. They assisted the Jewish women in the birthing process and helped raise the babies.
Rashi comments that this trait of Yocheved and Miriam is the reason behind their names of Shifra and Puah. Rashi explains that Yocheved’s name Shifra means to beautify. Yocheved would make sure that the Jewish babies looked good and healthy. Miriam’s name of Puah means to soothe. Miriam would hold the babies who were crying, play with them and try to calm them.
Rabbi Yissachar Frand raises a difficulty. It seems strange that the Torah would memorialize Yocheved and Miriam through the care they gave to the babies. Shouldn’t the Torah have memorialized Yocheved and Miriam because of their heroic resistance to Pharaoh and their saving of the Jewish babies?
Rabbi Frand suggests an answer that he heard from Rabbi Ruderman zt”l, the Rosh Hayeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore. Rabbi Ruderman explained that true greatness is shown through the little things, the low-profile actions that reveal the true character of a person. Anybody can rise to the occasion and perform an action that grabs the headlines. But, the person then reverts to his normal self. The person says to himself, “I’ve done my duty. Now, it is time to get on with life.” However, true greatness is expressed in small and ordinary deeds. Many people could have been brave to take on Pharaoh’s decree. But, only Yocheved and Miriam had the presence of mind to make sure that the babies were also provided for and ha proper care.
This is an idea that is often overlooked because it is the little things in life that make a difference – all of the behind the scenes help that people give to others when nobody is looking. In the production of a movie, it is the actors who receive 99% of the credit. But, what about the script writers, the producers, those who construct the scenery, etc.? Almost nobody thinks about them. But, the movie could not go on without them.
The Tanach does not hesitate to show us the “little points” of our great people. Avraham invited guests into his home. Yosef had desires but was able to control them. The Gemara also does not hesitate to show us the “little points” of our great people. The Gemara informs us that Rabbi Akiva did not begin studying until the age of 40. It was through effort that he became the great Rabbi Akiva. That is a little thing that made a great difference. The Gemara tells us of his courting Rachel, the daughter of Kalva Savua – and her sacrifice on his behalf – also little things that made a great difference.
That is the lesson the Torah wants to teach us through Shifra and Puah. The major actions are important. But, it is the normal actions and “little things” that really make a difference in our lives.