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Shemot | The Birth of Moshe

Rav Michael Hattin
In memory of Joseph Y. Nadler, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi, z"l.
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Last week, we concluded the Book of Bereishit, which is primarily concerned with the story of individuals and their life-long quest to achieve trust in God.  The Book of Shemot, in contrast, describes the founding of a nation.  Settled in the verdant Delta under Yosef's watchful eye, Yaakov's descendents promptly establish themselves as a privileged and prosperous class.  Growing in numbers, they begin to fill the region of Goshen and to expand beyond its borders.  The native backlash, as harsh as it is inevitable, is not long in coming, for the new Pharaoh who arises after Yosef's death is quick to initiate a policy of disenfranchisement, dehumanization and demonization of the Hebrew masses. 


Able to easily tap into a well-established Egyptian tradition of xenophobia, Pharaoh at first acts quietly to subdue the growing numbers and power of the budding Israelite tribe. Adopting insidious methods that would render any tyrant proud, Pharaoh introduces his policies of exclusion and oppression incrementally.  Thus, the Hebrews are first pressed into national service, which is only later followed by more rigorous and severe forms of forced labor. 


But alarmed by continuing reports of their unnatural increase in spite of his new policies, Pharaoh decides to curb their numbers by introducing a series of more ominous and drastic decrees.  The midwives are officially informed that they must surreptitiously slay all male newborns at the moment of birth.  They refuse to comply, however, thus performing one of humanity's earliest recorded acts of civil disobedience.  Although failing in his attempt to win over the righteous midwives to his racist cause, Pharaoh nevertheless decides that his policies have finally laid the groundwork for the public introduction of the most drastic "solution" of all: "Pharaoh commanded his whole nation saying: 'Cast all male newborns into the Nile, but allow the females to live!'" (Shemot 1:22).


The Child's Anonymous Birth


Against that backdrop of disillusion and despair,


"a man from the house of Levi took the daughter of Levi as his wife.  The woman conceived and gave birth.  Seeing that the child was good, she hid him for three months.  When she was no longer able to hide him, she prepared a box ('teiva') of reeds and covered it with a coat of clay and pitch.  She put the child in it, and placed it in the rushes by the banks of the Nile" (Shemot 2:1-3). 


This account of an anonymous Levite couple, as pathetic as it is brief, is the Torah's introduction to the birth of Moshe. 


Commenting on the narrative's uncharacteristic vagueness concerning the identity of the protagonists, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) explains:


"The Torah does not mention the name of the man or of the woman that he took as his wife, for this would have necessitated a listing of their respective genealogies.  But for now, the text wishes to focus on the birth of the deliverer, and later it will return to describe his family roots..." 


His Mother's Plan to Save Him


Concerning the child's unusual 'goodness' that motivated his mother's desperate plan, the Ramban observes:


"Surely all mothers love their children whether they are beautiful or not.  Under those tragic circumstances, wouldn't any mother have attempted to conceal her child to the best of her abilities?  Rather, the child's so-called 'goodness' is a way of saying that the mother felt something extraordinary about the situation, as if she knew that somehow he would be saved.  And so she pondered the matter and formulated a scheme for his rescue" (Commentary to 2:1-4). 


In other words, the Ramban detects in the various lexical cues of omission and economy, an underlying theme: although seemingly a birth like all the others, this child is in fact exceptional, for God has chosen him as the instrument for the liberation of his people from bondage.  His mother, who reluctantly releases him down the river so that he might survive, is only dimly aware of his future mission, the child not at all.  But in the midst of the most unkind and grim circumstances imaginable, in which a mother must falteringly surrender the innocent object of her maternal love and the precious symbol of a brighter future, God patiently but obscurely lays the groundwork for the redemption of His people Israel.


The Box of Reeds or 'Teiva' – Parallels to Noach's Ark


This motif is reinforced by the mother's unwitting use of the 'box' or 'teiva' as the vehicle for the child's salvation.  As we considered last year (see Parashat Noach, 1999), the Torah utilizes this unusual term to describe a waterproof craft in only two contexts.  The first is the Ark of Noach within which huddle the remnants of humanity and of all other life, as the flood waters inexorably rise to eventually obliterate the earth and its inhabitants.  The second instance is in our Parasha, where the 'teiva' is the basket of reeds into which the mother tenderly places her young son.


In biblical Hebrew, an 'oniya' (see Bereishit 49:13, Devarim 28:68, Yona 1:3, etc.), or rarely a 'sephina' (Yona 1:5) is the term used to describe a sea-going vessel, but never, barring our context and the one other, a 'teiva.'  What is the structural difference between a 'teiva' and the vessels described by these other terms?  R. Avraham Ibn Ezra (Spain, 11th century), commenting on Noach's ark, remarks that the noun "teiva rather than sephina, indicates a craft that does not have the form of an oniya, and has no oars or rudder" (Bereishit 6:14).  How unusual that the Divine Engineer offers such very specific directions to Noach about the construction of that ark ("Make an ark of 'gofer' wood, divide it into cells, and cover it inside and out with pitch.  This is how you shall fashion it: three hundred cubits in length, fifty in width, thirty in height shall it be.  Make for it a skylight, slope its roof to the measure of a cubit, place the doorway on its side, and make it of three levels..." – Bereishit 6:14-16) but neglects to mention the provision of oars or a rudder, or for that matter sails! 


God's Compassionate Providence


The significance of this glaring omission is quite obvious.  The lack of oars or a rudder effectively render the ark incapable of being steered.  The rising floodwaters will bear the craft, but Noach will have no say in what direction the craft will go or where it will land. Only God's merciful providence will ensure that the ark successfully weathers the torrential floodwaters and lands intact on safe shores.  God is the guiding power who drives the ark through the churning deep and steers it clear of mishap.


In a similar vein, when the mother places her infant son into his teiva and releases him to the unknown, she is not simply saving his life by aiding his escape down river.  Her seemingly hopeless gesture, after all other possibilities of concealing Moshe have been exhausted, actually represents an act of great faith.  By constructing this craft for him and allowing it to pathetically float away from her maternal embrace, she is in fact entrusting the life of her child to the Merciful God.  It is He who will care for Moshe and lovingly guide him downstream into the unexpectedly sympathetic arms of Pharaoh's daughter!


Pharaoh's Daughter


"Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, attended by her maidens.  She saw the box among the rushes and sent her maidservant to fetch it.  She opened it and saw the crying infant.  Having compassion upon him, she remarked: 'he is a Hebrew child!'" (Shemot 2:5-6). 


How unusual that of all the people who may have discovered the newborn, it is none other than a Princess of Egypt who finds him.  Surely the child's sister, who protectively hovered at a distance (2:4), held her breath fearfully, as the Tyrant's own daughter pried off the lid of the box.  But gazing into the blameless face of the crying infant, her eyes met his and filled with mist, for she knows the cruel fate that otherwise awaits him.  Looking across the abyss that aggressors are wont to quarry between themselves and the helpless victims whom they have slated for elimination, Pharaoh's daughter solemnly resolves to preserve the child as her own son.


How ironic indeed that it is Pharaoh's daughter who saves the child from certain death, and then raises him within the protective halls of her own father's palace.  How mightily did Pharaoh attempt to eradicate hope and longing from the broken Hebrew heart!  How menacingly did he wield the authority of his state to crush them in servitude and destroy any possibility of their freedom!  How brutally did he implement his nefarious scheme to break their numbers and their resolve!  How incongruous it is, therefore, that the cruel Pharaoh tenderly raises the future liberator as his very own grandchild.  Like the other details, this one too emphatically proclaims that a superficial reading of events ostensibly indicating God's abject absence is in fact erroneous, for He is constantly aware, concerned, and involved.  If it is His will that the people of Israel be saved, then even the fierce Pharaoh himself, the exclusive author of their misfortunes, will be divinely recruited to propel forward the process of their redemption.


The Midrashic Reading


This striking insight was first affirmed by the Midrash, commenting on the critical moment when Pharaoh's daughter first notices the box of reeds in the rushes.  "Pharaoh's daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, attended by her maidens.  She saw the box among the rushes and sent her maidservant to fetch it."  By employing a slight interpretive flourish, the Midrash reads the text not as "she sent her maidservant (AMata) to fetch it," but rather as "she stretched out her forearm (AMMata) to fetch it." Commenting further, the Midrash suggests that 'her forearm was extended by many cubits,' in order to allow her to grasp the reed box that she spied from afar (see Tractate Sota 12b). 


The literal reading that the Midrash offers, implausible at best, is secondary to its more profound implication.  The confluence of events that results in Pharaoh's own daughter retrieving the doomed infant from certain death, so that he might instead mature under her father's aegis to eventually free the slaves, is so extraordinary as to be almost inconceivable.  It is the thematic equivalent of the Princess's arm being miraculously outstretched to take hold of the distant 'teiva.'  Both readings, however, are assertions of the same remarkable truth:


"I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt...and I will save them..." (Shemot 3:7-8).


The Naming of the Child


Arriving at the scene of the rescue but without divulging her identity, the infant's sister offers to obtain a Hebrew woman to nurse him.  Unbeknownst to Pharaoh's daughter, the girl summons the infant's true mother, who is then hired to nurse him! 


"The child grew, and the woman presented him to Pharaoh's daughter who took him as her son.  She called his name 'Moshe,' for she said: 'I have drawn him from the water' (MiShitiHu)" (Shemot 2:10). 


The probable root 'MaShaH' that constitutes the basis of the name means to 'draw out,' and by extension 'to remove from danger.'  The child's unusual name is therefore indicative of his unusual origins.  Pharaoh's daughter drew him out of the water of the Nile and thus saved his life, and her compassionate act is forever commemorated by his name.


Significantly, though, the stated reason for the name Moshe, namely that he 'was drawn,' speaks of the infant's passivity.  He was drawn out of the water by others and was not at all the author of his own salvation.  This being the case, his name should have more properly been MaShui, for this is the passive form of the root.  'Moshe,' in contrast, is the active form of the root and means not 'to be drawn,' but rather 'to draw.'  The Seforno (16th century, Italy) perceptively observes:


"his name means 'to draw others out of distress.'  Pharaoh's daughter remarked: 'I have given him this name to indicate that he will in turn rescue others, for I saved him from the waters.  Surely his deliverance was accomplished through the agency of a Higher Power, in order that he might one day rescue others'" (commentary to 2:10). 


In other words, Seforno suggests that Moshe's very name highlights the sense of mission to which even Pharaoh's daughter is apparently sensitive.




This week we studied a number of particulars associated with Moshe's birth, rescue, and early development.  We traced his propitious birth to the as-of-yet anonymous parents, saw his mother's valiant attempts to preserve him from the evil decree, and marveled at how he was eventually rescued by Pharaoh's daughter.  Finally, we considered the significance of his name.  Taken together, all of these disparate elements were discovered to proclaim the same fundamental theme of national deliverance being a function of Divine intervention, as unlikely as the circumstances at the time seem to indicate.  The early part of this Parasha is therefore about God's selection of Moshe for a special role.  The remainder of the Parasha concerns the corollary to that principle: that God's will must be animated by human action in order to be realized.  God may have chosen Moshe; he, in turn, must choose God, by freely accepting the destiny that is emphatically declared by his special birth and unique name.


Shabbat Shalom

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