Leaving Idols, Mothering Moses

Rabbi Michael Graetz
Dear Chevra, Rabbi Michael Graetz teaches at Mercaz Shiluv, an Educational Center in Beer Sheva that operates in cooperation with the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. This commentary on the Torah's story about Pharaoh's daughter's act of civil disobedience especially interested me. Rabbi Graetz writes: "Shalom to all my colleagues. Please feel free to use what I send, in sermons etc. My only request is that if you print it anywhere that you cite me as the source." — Shalom, Arthur.

Leaving Idols, Mothering Moses

By Rabbi Michael Graetz

In the light of the rabbinic dictum that Israel left Egypt because of the merit of righteous women of the generation of the exodus; the story of the finding and saving of Moses is particularly significant. (cf. Sotah 11b) Yocheved, Moses' mother decides to send the infant out in a basket floating on the Nile. It is either this or to watch him taken from her and drowned in the Nile, as Pharaoh had instructed. (Ex. 1, 22) Miriam, Moses' sister hides herself by the Nile to see what will become of Moses.

Then we read: "The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it." (Ex. 2, 5) Here is another woman who plays a role in saving Moses, the leader who will stand against Pharaoh. The plot, however, seems very pat. The daughter of the king, no less, comes to exactly the spot on the Nile where the basket will be seen. She does not ignore it, but commands her slave girl to fetch it. Furthermore, even though she knows it is a Hebrew baby (cf. Ex. 2, 6) she decides to save him and take responsibility for his life and education.

Why does she come down to the Nile to bathe? One Midrash turns this whole story into a struggle for self definition, that is, the story of the daughter of Pharaoh is a microcosm of the story of Israel. According to this Midrash she comes down to the river to cleanse herself of the idolatry of the king's court. (Sekehl Tov on Ex. 2 no. 46)

The Midrash then launches into a fantastic reading of Biblical texts which end up with Caleb, the Israelite, marrying Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh, who converts to Judaism in order to marry him. [Move over Madonna.] Caleb is called Mered, literally "rebellion", in I Chron. 4. His Jewish wife is none other than the aforementioned Bityah. The book of Chronicles is written in order to explain matters in the Torah (Sekhel Tov ibid.).

The reason that they marry is that they are both rebels. Bityah rebelled against the idolatry, and presumably the harsh social policies, of her father. She rebels by going to the Nile to bathe, that is, to immerse herself, as in a mikvah, for the purpose of denouncing idolatry. Our Midrash comments: "Anyone who rejects idolatry is called a Jew"! When she sends her servant to take the baby and it is clear that she means to save him, her other servant girls say to her: "the way of the world is that when a king makes a decree, even if all of the people of the world do not follow it, the king's family certainly follows it. You are rejecting your father's decree, and keeping the Hebrew baby alive!?" At this outburst of Bityah's servants the angel Gabriel comes and throws them all down on the banks of the Nile and kills them.

From the story it seems clear that Pharaoh's decree was kept scrupulously by the Egyptians. Indeed, it is only Bityah who rebels against the decree and against the majority. In that, Caleb is like her, for he rebels against the majority of the scouts who say that Israel cannot enter the land of Israel. He, and Joshua, defy them and the nation in order to keep faith with God's decrees, rather than with the decrees of earthly kings or committees.

Finally, this Midrash mentions another woman. When Miriam approaches Bityah and asks if she should call a Hebrew nurse for the baby, she is told "yes". Then we read: "so the girl went ["va-telekh ha-almah"] and called the child's mother" (Ex. 2, 8) One might think that the "girl", Hebrew "almah", here is the child's sister. But, our Midrash notes that there is a pause before this part of the verse. That is, it reads the answer of Pharaoh's daughter to Miriam, and then Bityah commands one of her servant girls, the "almah" in question, to run and fetch a Hebrew nurse.

The Midrash does this by relating to the word "almah", interpreting it, "she kept it quiet, and did not reveal the secret to any person that the baby belonged to the nurse who was called." The Hebrew root ayin, lamed, mem is at the base of both the word "almah" and the word which means to hide, "he'elimah".

The idea of rebellion against noxious policies, of standing up to those who cause suffering is the major theme. The spurning of God's ways and values is described here as idolatry, and one who rejects idolatry is called a Jew. It is this approach that hints at an aggadic understanding of the meaning of being Jewish which stands behind formal rituals, and even transcends them.

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