Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Shocking Truth About a Megalomaniac's Daughter: How One Person's Courage & Kindness Can Change History

Moses in the Bulrushes
Last weekend was a joyful time as our son Jacob celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. 

As is customary in our synagogue, he spoke at the end of the service about something he had learned to do with the Torah portion he had read earlier in the morning. This portion tells the well known story, set in Egypt, of Moses (Moshe) being hidden in the bulrushes and subsequently rescued, to prevent him from being killed by the ruling Pharaoh. 

The lessons Jacob articulated in his speech, relate to bringing comfort and caregiving through empathy, courage and kindness. He also discusses how we can learn to resist the tendency to stereotype at first sight. I thought these messages would resonate with you and so I have reproduced the speech here.

The last Six Parshiot ( Genesis: 25-50) were all about Jacob which should be very exciting as my name is Jacob.

So I am asking myself, how come I am having my Bar Mitzvah on the first week in six weeks that has almost nothing to do with Jacob and begins with the birth of Moshe ( Moses). Thanks Mom and Dad-just saying.  Anyway, I will do the best I can but as a small protest I am not going to speak about Moshe. I am going to talk about someone else.

Let me set the scene:

In the second chapter of Shemot (Exodus), we learn about the birth of Moshe.

When Moshes parents, Amram and Yocheved gave birth to a boy they were afraid that he would be thrown into the Nile as Pharaoh had commanded.

At first they hid him. But as it says in chapter 2 v.3
ג  וְלֹא-יָכְלָה עוֹד, הַצְּפִינוֹ, וַתִּקַּח-לוֹ תֵּבַת וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד, וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל-שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר.
3 And when she could not longer hide him, she made him an ark of bulrushes, and she put the child in it, and laid it in the rushes by the water’s edge
ד  וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק, לְדֵעָה, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ.
4 And his sister stood far off, to know what would be done to him.

Then a story happens that we know so well, but we dont often stop and think how unusual it is. Miriam, Moshe’s older sister is sent by Yocheved to keep an eye on Moshe’s basket and as she watches a surprising narrative unfolds.

ה  וַתֵּרֶד בַּת-פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל-הַיְאֹר, וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל-יַד הַיְאֹר; וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת-אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ.

5 And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river; and her maidens walked along by the riverside; and she saw the ark among the reeds, and sent her handmaid to fetch it.

Of all the people who planned to save a little Jewish boy, it was the daughter of Pharaoh who did so.  

She was the daughter of the SAME Pharaoh who had ordered that all Jewish boys be drowned in the water.

I have been imagining the conversation between Pharaoh and his daughter, when she returned to the palace.......

Pharaoh: So how was your day dear?

Daughter: It was fine. You’ll never guess what I did. I adopted a baby boy. You are going to be a grandpa.

Pharaoh: But you’re not even married.

 Daughter: I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.

Pharaoh: Does the baby have a name?

 Daughter: I thought I would call him Moses because I drew him out of the water?

Pharaoh: What was he doing in the water?

Daughter: He must have been learning to swim!!!

I don’t think that this conversation would have been a great success for Pharaoh’s daughter.

In fact, according to the Talmud in Sotah, when Pharaoh’s daughter’s slave girls saw that she wanted to save the baby, they reminded her,

“When the king issues a decree, even if the whole world does not obey it, his own children and family MUST obey it”.

Pharaoh’s daughter had more of an obligation to obey the law about drowning Hebrew boys than anyone else in Egypt, and yet she had chosen to disobey her own father.

Fortunately, another alternative presented itself. Miriam approached Pharaoh’s daughter and asked,

הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָאתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת, מִן הָעִבְרִיֹּת; וְתֵינִק לָךְ, אֶת-הַיָּלֶד.
Shall I go and call a nurse from the Hebrews so that she can nurse the baby?

Pharoah’s daughter tells Miriam to go and fetch such a nurse who is of course, none other than Moshe’s mother Yocheved.

Pharoah’s Daughter says to Miriam “Go take this baby to the nurse and I will pay her wages.

Rabbi Melissa Crespy discusses the importance of Pharaohs daughter paying money to Tziporah to nurse Moshe.

Crespy points out that according to Mesopotamian law, if the natural mother is paid to nurse by the adoptive mother then the adoption is legal.

And that is what caused the adoption not to be questioned in the court of pharaoh.

In some ways, the next part of the story is even more amazing.

During the two years that Moshe was being nursed by Yocheved, Pharaohs daughter could have changed her mind, forgotten about Moshe, or just decided that he wasnt worth the bother.

But she didnt.

and he became like her son. She named him Moses, and she said, "For I drew him from the water."

וַיְהִי לָהּ לְבֵן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ משֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ:
She made good on her promise, to care for him and took Moshe to the palace of Pharaoh, treating him as her own child.

For doing all of this, I am curious as to how Pharaohs daughter is remembered by Jewish tradition.

Was she just a small part of G-ds master plan?

 Was she just in the right place at the right time?

Or was she a true heroine?

This is an important question because unlike the main characters in the narrative of Shemot, she barely gets six verses of Torah in which she is mentioned. Compare that to the seven Parshiot that talk about Jacob.

We get some indication as to how important she was, because according to the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, the name of Pharaohs daughter was Batya, which means daughter of G-d.

The reason that she is given this name is because G-d said to her, what in my opinion is one of the most powerful sentences ever spoken in Midrash.

G-d says to Batya “Moses was not your son but you called him your son; you are not my daughter but I will call you my daughter”.

 Batya’s significance is strengthened even more by The Midrash in Masekhet Derekh Eretz 1:18.

This Midrash names Batyah as one of only 9 people in history who didnt die but entered the Garden of Eden, while still alive. This is the greatest reward that can be earned in Jewish Tradition.

The meaning of these events that speaks loudest to me from this story is something Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches.

He points out that even though Pharoah was one of the most evil people in history, his daughter was the complete opposite. She was prepared to disobey her own father because of what she believed to be right.

Rabbi Sack’s says that if we imagine that this situation  had been about Hitler’s daughter or Osama Bin Laden’s daughter then we can really understand how brave Batya was.

She was the earliest example of a non-Jew risking her life to save a Jew from persecution.

She was a role model for the righteous gentiles who are the Christians who saved the Jews during the Holocaust.

Now I really understand why she received the honor of going directly to the Garden of Eden.

Although many of the Egyptians were evil, Pharoah’s daughter reminds us that not ALL the Egyptians were evil.

And in telling this story the Torah teaches us how careful we must be not to judge  people in a group, generalize or stereotype.

I first learned about stereotyping from discussions with my brother Benjy about stereotypes in TV shows. I then understood it more after my experience at Camp Ramah. I spent a lot of time, while I was at my sleep-away camp,  meeting new campers in Amitzim. Amitzim is the program for children with special needs.

At first I thought, it would be an interesting thing to do, but now some of them have become my close friends and I couldn’t imagine celebrating my Bar Mitzvah without inviting them. I am so glad that Molly from New Jersey and Uriel from Silver Spring have joined my other friends today. I appreciate you all coming to celebrate with me.

 I hope to be an example of not judging other people. In that way I get to find new friends who make my life better.

I think if we all challenge ourselves to be open minded and to realize that any person that we meet may be a pharaoh’s daughter, then our world will be a much better place.

I hope you are all enjoying the holiday season and wish you a joyful and peaceful time with family and friends.
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  1. Mazal tov! This is beautiful!

  2. What a wonderful d'var Torah. Beautiful insights indeed. Mazal tov!

    1. Thank you! Jacob enjoyed sharing what he had learned. Her actions resonated with him as a role model for doing the right thing, even though it is the more difficult choice. Gillyx

  3. Thank you Jacob, I will carry those words with me . Very best wishes , Jo Buonaguidi

  4. What a wonderful new perspective on the story of Moses. Thank you, Jacob!