By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
January 16, 2004
Pharaoh’s oppression of the Hebrews has reached its lowest
And Pharaoh commanded his entire nation, saying, “Every son that will be born
shall you cast into the Canal [Nile], but every daughter shall you keep alive”
Pharaoh’s astrologers have divined that the Hebrews’ savior has
been born, and that his downfall would come via water. However, it is unclear to
them whether this savior is a Hebrew or an Egyptian, so Pharaoh’s decree even
applies to his own countrymen (Rashi, based on Sotah 12a, Shemot Rabbah 1:18,
The Hebrews’ savior is indeed born:
And there went a man of the house of Levi, and he took the daughter of Levi [in
marriage]. And the woman conceived and bore a son (2:1-2) .
The woman is Yocheved, wife of Amram, and the child is Moshe (6:20). Ever on the
lookout for newborn Hebrews, the Egyptians had known Yocheved was pregnant.
Therefore, the baby is born three months premature, but he is healthy:
And she saw him that he was good,
— so she can hide him until the Egyptians will begin looking for him —
and she hid him for three months (2:2) .
Then she must take more drastic measures:
And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of (TEIVAT) gomeh,
and smeared [it] with mud and with pitch, and put the boy in it, and put [it] in
the reed-grass on the shore of the Canal [Nile] (2:3).
A TEIVAH is a rectangular box with a flat bottom that can rest on the ground.
GOMEH is the Egyptian plant called papyrus. It grows in marshy areas (Iyov
8:11), and it is buoyant (Yesha’yahu 18:2), light and flexible, so it is
suitable for both calm and swift waters. Smearing the mud on the inside and the
pitch on the outside makes the TEIVAH watertight, and spares the baby from the
offensive smell of the pitch (Sotah l.c.). The gomeh very closely resembles the
reed-grass (some say they are the same plant), so it provides excellent
Why does Yocheved put the little baby in the TEIVAH, and the TEIVAH in the Nile?
Has she utterly despaired of protecting her child, and wants
only to keep herself from seeing him taken from her, as Ibn-Ezra suggests? If
so, how is she any different from the dissolute Hagar, who abandoned the ailing
Yishmael under a bush so she would “not see the lad’s death” (Bereishit
Or, did her daughter Miriam – who is a prophetess (Shemot 15:20) – instruct her
that this is the way to save the baby, as Ibn-Ezra also suggests? If so, why did
Yocheved not join her daughter in watching to find out the outcome of their
Is Yocheved, perhaps, merely removing the baby from discovery at home, using the
reed-grass as an interim hiding place, unseen by those on the shore, like the
maidens of Pharaoh’s daughter (Bechor Shor, Chizkuni)? But then, how can the
baby remain undetected if he cries? And doesn’t Yocheved know that people
bathing in the water might see the TEIVAH, as eventually happens?
Perhaps Yocheved desperately hopes that there are still some compassionate
Egyptians who will care for the foundling, as suggested by Abravanel. [It is
thus ironic – and heartening – that that compassion is found in Pharaoh’s own
household!] But, we are surprised that the saintly Yocheved does not pray that
one such person steps forward.
For a fuller answer, let us compare Moshe’s TEIVAH with the only other TEIVAH in
Tanach, namely, that of Noach, which Hashem commanded at the time of the Flood:
Make for yourself an ark of (TEIVAT) gofer-wood; rooms shall you make for the
ark; and you shall cover it from within and from without with tar (Bereishit
There are obvious differences between the two TEIVOT: the materials from which
they are made; the dimensions; and the number of occupants. Furthermore,
Yocheved does not make her TEIVAH, but rather took one she already had, while
Noach constructed made his at Hashem’s command. Also, Moshe’s TEIVAH is kept
stationary by the reed-grass, and is intended for concealment, while Noach’s is
held, or stopped, by Mount Ararat, and is exposed.
What is more significant, however, is the similarity of the two TEIVOT:
As sea vessels, they are moved entirely by wind and waves;
they have neither rudder nor sails, and neither sailors nor oars. They are
therefore completely reliant upon Hashem’s benevolence.
Both are meant to protect and save those within from the
dangers, corruption and Divine decrees of destruction that rage outside.
Salvation comes through natural means: both Yocheved and Noach
act without expecting miracles, while demonstrating trust in Hashem (Rabbenu
Those who are saved by the two TEIVOT become the founders of a
new world-order: Noach, of mankind, and Moshe, of the nation of Israel. Both
Noach and Moshe make covenants with Hashem, and both receive commandments from
Him, on behalf of their peoples.
Moshe’s TEIVAH, like Noach’s, becomes the key to salvation in
the darkest of times.
Seeing all male babies, Egyptian and Hebrew, thrown into the Nile, and knowing
the Egyptians’ reliance upon magic and astrology, Yocheved concludes (or perhaps
hears from the officers) that the Hebrews’ savior is the target of the decree.
Her son, born in the midst of all this, may have been born to be that savior.
She looks for a way to thwart Pharaoh’s designs.
Sforno says that Yocheved
“chose the place of the reed-grass in order to transform the decree of casting
him into the Canal into placing him in the reed-grass on the shore of the Canal
As a result, Pharaoh’s astrologers misinterpret the stars as
saying that their prognostications have been fulfilled (Shemot Rabbah 1:25, 29;
Sotah 12b). Pharaoh’s decree is recalled forthwith, and the stage is set for
Moshe to lead the surviving nation out of servitude.
Yocheved intended her child to become a latter-day Noach, and Hashem fulfills a
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
In Devarim Rabbah, Chapter 5, Rabbi Levi portrays Moshe as arguing with
God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, just as God has allowed
Joseph’s bones to enter. God replies that Yoseph’s bones will enter
because when Yoseph stood before Pharaoh, he “acknowledged the Land of
Israel” as his land, declaring that he was from the land of the Hebrews (Bereishit
40:15). Moshe, however, will not be buried in the Land of Israel, because
when he escaped from Egypt to Midian, he allowed Yitro’s daughters to
present him to Yitro as an “Egyptian man” (Shemot 2:19).
This Midrash is difficult. Yoseph could, indeed, say that he was from
the “land of the Hebrews.” But Moshe could not make such a statement. He
was an “Egyptian man.” He traveled on an Egyptian passport. He had never
set foot in the “land of the Hebrews.” Moshe could perhaps have said that
he was a Hebrew, but not that he was from the land of the Hebrews. Why
then was he denied entry into the Land?
In the eyes of R. Levi, to declare you are a Jew is equivalent to
acknowledging the Land of Israel as your land. The connection between the
Jewish people and the Land is an intrinsic, essential one. Therefore, had
Moshe said, “I am a Jew,” his declaration would have been an
acknowledgment of the Land of Israel as his land. This he could very well
have said, even though he traveled on an Egyptian passport. His failure to
make such a statement reflected a weakness in Moshe’s connection to the
R. Nachman of Breslav said: “Wherever I go, I am going to Eretz Yisrael.”
Prof. Yehuda Gelman
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Tel: 972-2-566-1181 ext. 320