Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Shemot 5763

This week’s parsha is Shemot, which means names. Since the most familiar biblical names – Abraham, Moses, King David, etc. - are the names of men, some erroneously conclude that women are all but ignored by the Torah. How pleased I am to comment on Shemot. It gives me a chance to illustrate that, although sometimes hidden beneath the surface, the Torah is actually full of stories about women.

Even those who know relatively little about Judaism have heard of Moses (Moshe). Our tradition teaches that the prophecy of Moshe was superior to that of any other prophet, before or since. Moshe redeemed us from slavery in Egypt and brought down the Torah from Mt. Sinai. He led us through the desert for 40 years and is among the most important leaders we have ever had.

This week’s parsha includes the famous story of G-d calling to Moshe from the midst of a burning bush. But wait! Were it not for the women in his life, Moshe would not have lived to experience that remarkable moment.

Just before Moshe’s birth, Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, charged the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah with killing all male children at birth. Moshe was first saved by the midwives’ intrepid defiance of Pharaoh’s plot of infanticide. Interestingly, there is a strong tradition that Shifrah and Puah are nicknames for Yocheved and Miriam – mother and sister of Moshe.

When Pharaoh’s infanticide plan failed, he decreed that all male children be drowned in the Nile. His mother Yocheved was able to keep Moshe, born during this decree, hidden for his first three months of life. When she could no longer hide him, she prepared a waterproof basket, placed Moshe inside and set her infant son floating in the water near the bank of the Nile. By fashioning a protective basket and placing him gently in the river, rather than drowning him in it, Yocheved saved Moshe from certain death a second time and gave him another chance at life.

Pharaoh's daughter went to bathe in the Nile, while her maids walked along the Nile's edge. She saw the box in the rushes, and sent her slave-girl to fetch it. (Exodus 2:5). Moshe’s life is saved a third time when the daughter of Pharaoh, whom the Torah names Batya, rescued him from the river.

Rashi (11th century) teaches that Batya tried unsuccessfully to get Moshe to nurse from an Egyptian woman. Rather than starve to death, [Moshe's] sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, 'Shall I go and call a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?' (Exodus 2:7). A deal was struck and Moshe’s own mother, Yocheved, nursed him until the age of two. This solution saved Moshe from death, this time by starvation, a fourth time.

After weaning, Moshe was returned to Batya who raised him as her own son, in open defiance of her father Pharaoh. When he was grown, Moshe went out among his people and saw an Egyptian slave master kill one of the Hebrew slaves. Confirming first that no one was watching, Moshe killed the Egyptian and buried his body in sand. The next day, upon learning that there were witnesses to his crime, Moshe fled to the land of Midian to escape the wrath of Pharaoh.

In Midian, he met Tziporah, one of the seven daughters of Yisro, the priest of Midian. The Yalkut Shemoni (13th century) teaches that that, not knowing the true identity of the stranger Moshe, Yisro threw him into prison and ordered that he not be given any food or water. Tziporah took pity on Moshe and secretly brought him food and water every day for ten years. Thus Tziporah, who later became Moshe’s wife, saved his life a fifth time.

There is a sixth life-saving incident, which occurs after G-d calls to Moshe from the burning bush, in which Tziporah saves Moshe again, this time from an angel of G-d who comes to kill Moshe for the sin of delaying the circumcision of his second son. This incident is found in the thorny verses of Exodus 4:24-26.

Moshe is the greatest prophet and most praised leader the Jewish people have ever known. But were it not for the praiseworthy women who saved him from death again and again, the Jewish people would have been eternally bereft of his peerless leadership.

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