<I> Sh'mot</I>: A Model for Moses

Who was the real model for Moses, the great liberator of his people who waged a successful revolution against one of the mightiest autocrats in history, Pharaoh, king of Egypt?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
Who was the real model for Moses, the great liberator of his people who waged a successful revolution against one of the mightiest autocrats in history, Pharaoh, king of Egypt? It may very well have been Amram his father, who, according to the midrash, was the head of the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) and labored mightily to maintain the traditions of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob even among the Hebrew slaves; it may also have been Yocheved his mother, who, according to the midrash, was one of the midwives who refused to listen to Pharaoh's orders to murder all of the baby males on their birth-stools; and it may even have been his older sister Miriam, who argued with her father against his original plan to separate Hebrew husbands from their wives so that no Hebrew male babies would be cast into the Nile River. Miriam charged her father with being even stricter than Pharaoh, since the Egyptian despot only prevented the Hebrew males from growing up, while the "divorce plan" would prevent Hebrew girls as well as boys from being born. Amram accepted his daughter's argument; and so, baby Moses was born.

I believe that Moses' true model was his third parent, his Gentile, Egyptian "mother", who was no less an important factor in his life than were Amram, Yocheved and Miriam. The Bible opens Chapter 2 of the Book of Exodus with the very nondescript and laconic record that "a man went from the house of Levi and took a daughter of Levi; the woman conceived and gave birth to a son whom they hid [from the Egyptian authorities] for three months. [The woman] could not hide him any longer, so she took for him a wicker basket, and smeared it with clay and pitch. She placed the child into it and placed it among the reeds at the bank of the River [Nile]. His sister stationed herself at a distance to know what would be done with him." (Exodus 2: 1-4)

Each of these three characters are nameless; perhaps, because Egyptian law decreed that the baby boy-child was not supposed to have lived, and then neither he nor his parents and sister would even comprise a family unit together.

The story continues: "Pharaoh's daughter went down to bathe by the River [Nile], and her maidens walked along the river [to allow her some privacy - Netziv]. She saw the basket among the reeds; she sent forth her maidservant [the one close attendant who was usually constantly at her side] and took the basket. She opened it and saw him, the child, and behold, a youth was weeping. She took pity on him and said, 'this is one of the Hebrew baby boys.'" (Exodus 2:5,6)

Apparently, Pharaoh's daughter - identified by the midrash as Bityah, literally, "daughter of G-d" - suspected what was contained in the wicker basket, and desired to be alone - without any witnesses - when she opened it. Miriam the guardian seizes the moment to suggest calling a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby, and brings his biological mother Yocheved, whom the Egyptian princess hires immediately. "And the boy grew up, and she [Yocheved] brought him to the daughter of Pharaoh, and he was a son to her. And she called his name Moses [Moshe], as she said, 'For I drew him from the water.'" (Exodus 2:10)

Now, Ibn Ezra already asks about the origin of the name Moshe; the Hebrew literally means "I draw forth", the active verb, but in context, he should have been named "Mashui", the one who was drawn forth, in the passive voice. The Netziv and Kassuto both make the point that the word Moshe in Egyptian means son, which gives profound meaning to Bitya's declaration: "she called his name Moshe, son, because [she said] 'I drew him forth from the water.'" She is in effect declaring that she has earned the right to consider him her son since she took him from the water (a double entendre, referring both to the waters of the Nile River and, by allegory, the water or amniotic fluid which "breaks" with the birth of a baby) and saved his life from the Egyptian decree.

From this perspective, the Egyptian princess was a true rebel against the unjust and inhuman laws of Pharaoh's regime, risking her life to save this child of the Hebrews. Bitya was indeed a second mother, and a magnificent model of courage, righteousness and faith for a man whose name would prove prophetic: he, too, would "draw forth" the Hebrew slaves from the waters of the Reed Sea, bringing them from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light. Moshe would be the model for the eventual Moshia, or savior, who will ultimately bring all the nations of the world to peace, freedom and redemption. It is only fitting that our great liberator, who gave the message of freedom to Jew and Gentile alike, should have a mother born of Hebrews and a second mother born of Pharaoh.

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