Bar- Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemot 5765/ January 1, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

The Merits of Righteous Women

Edna Hillowitz
Givat Shemuel

 

The story of Moses’ birth and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:1-10) continues the motif of the previous story.  Pharaoh had decreed death on the newborn sons of the Hebrews, but the midwives did not obey him and bravely rescued sons, at the risk of their own lives (Ex. 1:17-19).  This was also the case in the story we shall discuss below.  Even though they are not mentioned by name, it is the women—the daughter of Pharaoh, the mother of the child, and the sister-- who move the current story forward. [1]   Moses is the only figure mentioned by name, and only at the end of the passage, after simply being called a “child” seven times and a “boy” once.

Scripture deliberately refrains from mentioning the characters by name; the reason for this will be discussed later.  Here, too, as in the previous chapter, a woman acts contrary to the king’s decree:   going through pregnancy and birth after the decrees were issued, hiding the child in her house, and placing him in a basket in the Nile. [2]

Jochebed, Moses’ mother, is mentioned by name only in chapter 6, verse 20.   The message conveyed thereby is that from a simple man and woman, without name and connection, the Lord fashions a person who delivers Israel. [3]   In Chapter 2 Jochebed is referred to as the “daughter of Levi” (v. 1), a “woman” (vv. 2, 9), a “nurse” (v. 7), and “the child’s mother” (v. 8).  Jochebed knew that leaving the newborn in her own home would surely mean death, as Abarbanel explains in his commentary:  “She saw that if the child remained in her home death would surely be at her throat, … and that if she removed him from her house then rescue from death might be possible … therefore she abandoned the path of certain death and took the one of possible death.” [4]

In the series of actions taken by the child’s mother – “she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch.  She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile” (v. 3) – one sees how deliberate and practical she was.   In order not to rely on a miracle, Jochebed acted swiftly, doing something that might provide a chance of saving her son. 

Moses’ sister, as well, like all the other characters in this passage, is not mentioned by name, rather she is referred to as “his sister” (vv. 4, 7) or “the girl” (v. 8).   She stationed herself where she could watch over the infant, even though any reasonable person would know that there was a family connection between her and the infant that had not been cast into the Nile, rather had been placed in the reeds.

Miriam continued the efforts to achieve the objective.  Just as we read of her mother that she “got a wicker basket for him” (v. 3), [5] so too we read that Miriam stationed herself so as “to learn what would befall him” (v. 4).  Moreover, before the Pharaoh’s daughter had time to decide what to do with the child, the Hebrew girl addressed her without hesitation or fear, making a clever suggestion that was favorably received:  “Shall I go and get you [Heb. lakh] a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you [Heb. lakh]?” (v. 7).   The repetition of you was intended to emphasize that the child would remain in the possession of Pharaoh’s daughter, and therefore the latter answered in a single word:  “Yes” (Heb. lekhi, lit. “go”).   Scripture continues, “So the girl went and called the child’s mother” (v. 8).  This pronoun explains the double use of the Hebrew root h-l-kh:   “Rabbi Eleazar said this indicates she went swiftly, like a young maiden.  Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said ha-almah (the Hebrew word used for “the girl” in verse 8) means that she concealed the true meaning (Heb. he’elimah) of what she was saying” (Sotah 12a), that is, she hid the fact that she was bringing the child’s mother.

 

Pharaoh’s daughter, her maidens and her slave girl join the circle of women who    affect the plot.   The structure of the passage shows that the action taken by Pharaoh’s daughter forms the core of the story.

 

The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, … (v. 2)

She got [Heb. va-tikah]… She put the child into it … (v. 3)

And his sister stationed herself at a distance, …   The daughter of Pharaoh came down …    She spied … (vv. 4-5)

… to fetch it.  When she opened it, she saw that it was a child (vv. 5-6)

She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” (v. 6)

Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, … (v. 7)

So the woman took [Heb. va-tikah] the child and nursed it. (v. 9)

… who made him her son. (v. 10)

 

Exactly the same Hebrew verbs used to describe the mother’s actions, “when she saw [Heb. va-tere] how beautiful he was, … she got [Heb. va-tikah] a wicker basket for him” (vv. 2,3) are used with respect to Pharaoh’s daughter:   “She spied [Heb. va-tere] the basket … to fetch it [Heb. va-tikaheha] (v. 5). [6]   In other words, she shows the same elementary maternal feelings.

Just as his mother was swift in acting, so was she:  “... she fetched it.  She opened it, and she saw him, ... and she took pity... and said” (vv. 5-7, translated more literally, to show the impact of the repetition of verbs).   Pharaoh’s daughter is as different as can be from her father, who decreed annihilation on the Hebrew male children, while she saved a Hebrew child.  How ironic that she, of all possible people, should have been the one who enabled the survival of the person who would implement the deliverance of Israel. [7]   A sense of pity welled up in her, opposing and overcoming all feelings of patriotism, and therefore she was deemed worthy of having the child become her son.

Scripture admires the action taken by Pharaoh’s daughter so much so that it uses the same language in the following chapter to describe the events at the burning bush.   Compare the following expressions:

 

 

At the burning bush

Pharaoh’s daughter

And the Lord continued, “I have marked well [Heb. ra’oh ra’iti] the plight of My people (3:7)

She spied [Heb. va-tere], ... she saw [Heb. va-tir’ehu] that it was a child (2:5-6)

I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians (3:8)

The daughter of Pharaoh came down (2:5)

Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh (3:10)

She ... sent her slave girl (2:6)

 

 

By virtue of the young child having been saved by three women, an entire people would later be delivered.  Henceforth the root sh-l-h becomes the leitmotif, until the climactic Parashat Be-Shalah, which closes the circle begun in this week’s reading.

In this narrative the Torah places in the limelight the deeds that were done, for they, and not the figures performing them, were of primary importance and purpose in attaining the objective.  Therefore the women are not mentioned by name.

To conclude, we note that throughout the entire passage there is not a single mention of the name of God. [8]   Attention should be paid to the fact that the Deity acts through nature, and as long as human beings are capable of acting themselves, He does not intervene openly.   True, His presence is sensed, but the Torah chooses to give center-stage to the wise and energetic women who led the redemption of Israel, championing them on high.

 



[1] M. D. Cassuto draws attention to the use of language, specifically the emphasis on the word bat, daughter, which appears in chapter 1 and is emphasized even more in chapter 2.  Perush al Sefer Shemot, 1949, p. 9.

[2] This is in contrast to stories from the ancient world where the hero is abandoned at birth, as in the nativity story of Sargon, King of Akkad.   In our story, the child is not abandoned at all.  For more on the birth of Sargon, see Olam ha-Tanakh, Exodus, Tel Aviv 1998.

[3] The last mention of Levi was in the previous week’s reading, Genesis 49:5-7, where Jacob comes out against Simeon and Levi.

[4] Commentary on the Torah, Exodus, Jerusalem 1964, p. 17.

[5] She, and not her husband, who is no longer mentioned after verse 1.

[6] It should be noted that according to traditional sources, Moses was born on the seventh of Adar, and his mother hid him for three months.   It follows that Pharaoh’s daughter rescued him on the sixth of Sivan, the same as the date on which Moses delivered the Torah to Israel (Sotah 12b).

[7] As attested by Midrash Tanhuma (Buber ed.), Ex. 8:   “The daughter of Pharaoh raised the person who was destined to exact retribution (li-fro’ah, a play on the king Par’oh) from her father and his land.

[8] This pattern is seen in other stories, as well, such as the Book of Esther.