D’Var Torah: Shemot, the Joke’s on Pharaoh

The weak defend themselves with humor. It can be Macaulay Culkin’s character outsmarting the burglars in the movie: “Home Alone,” or the Jews in Yiddish stories about bamboozling the non-Jewish authorities, or the protagonists in many hilarious Czech novels poking fun at the ham-fisted efforts of the Czechs’ German and, later, Russian occupiers to squelch their economy and culture. In whatever setting, we root for the scrappy underdog who turns the oppressors’ stupidity against them. We laugh at the downfall of the cruel and inept.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman

My colleague, David Kay, a recently retired rabbi in Orlando, Florida, sees a similar pattern in the story of the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, in this week’s parasha. In his (unpublished) reading of that tale, “the Torah is poking fun at the evil tyrant.”

He discerns two “jokes” in the otherwise terrifying and horrible account of killing Hebrew babies. Getting the first joke requires paying attention to a salient detail in the new Pharaoh’s decree intended to squelch the natural increase of the Israelite population. He tells Shifra and Puah, “When you deliver the Hebrew women and look on the birth-stool, if it is a boy, you shall put him to death, and if it is a girl, she may live.” (Exodus 1:16).
It is well-known to every shepherd and cattle-tender, Kay notes, that if you want to control the size of a population quickly, you eliminate female young.
This Pharaoh is oblivious to the fault in his plan, and we can already see that he is going to fall flat on his face in his effort to put an end to the Israelites that way.

The second joke, writes Kay, is a classic foundation of Jewish humor: using the oppressors’ blind prejudice to defeat them. The key point in Shiphrah and Puah’s explanation to this later Pharaoh is that: “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women…they are beasts” (Exodus 1:19).

Pharaoh buys the unlikely explanation that every Hebrew woman delivers before the midwives can arrive, because it fits with his dehumanizing narrative.

Turning the villain into a dope, he concludes, is both comic relief and foreshadowing, a reassurance that the oppressors in the reader’s generation will ultimately be hoisted on their own proverbial petard.

Humor can go only so far in undermining the power of oppressors, but it is one of the tools we can wield to keep our own spirits up during dark times. For many of us in Israel, these are such times, and humor may be an effective way of keeping up our morale and even of winning adherents for our views.

P.S.: Prof. James Ackerman noted the humor in the midwives narrative some 50 years ago. Reference to his article and additional sources on humor in the midwives narratives are available from the author on request.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is an American-born educator, writer and translator. He lives in Jerusalem and serves as Av Bet Din for the (Masorti ) Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.

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