The birth of Moshe represents a turning point of the Jewish saga in Egypt. This would-be savior arrives as the Jewish slaves are being mercilessly crushed by Egyptian oppression. Pharaoh had legislated that all Jewish infants be flung into the Nile river and delivered to their inevitable death; Egyptian discrimination had begotten slavery and slavery had morphed into genocide. It appeared as if the entire Jewish nation was slated for annihilation. At this dark moment the greatest man to ever inhabit our planet is born.
The epic birth of Moshe is preceded by verses describing the “marriage” of his parents- Amram and Yocheved. Stunningly, these verses conceal the true identity of Moshe’s parents. The Torah merely narrates about a “man” from the house of Levi who married a “woman” from the house of Levi, subsequently giving birth to Moshe. Why is Moshe’s birth introduced with the story of his parent’s marriage which had occurred decades earlier? After all, Moshe was the third child and this couple had already produced two older siblings- Aharon and Miriam. Why is the birth of this future ‘savior’, who transformed Jewish history, framed with this mysterious marriage of people whose identities are disguised?
The Midrash fills in the blanks and provides an interesting “backstory.” Facing devastating Egyptian cruelty, Amram, Moshe’s father, separated from his wife Yocheved. Whether he formally divorced her is unclear, but he certainly discontinued normal marital relations. Expanding their family under these circumstances would be pointless and even pathetic – as it would just provide more fodder for the crocodiles of the Nile. Without any horizons of hope, continued family life seemed futile and ridiculous and Amram, at least initially, chose the only practical option- surrender.
His daughter Miiam- Moshe’s older sister- intervened, pleading with her father to reconsider his fateful decision. As Amram was a high-profile leader, his decision would inevitably trigger “copycat behavior” leading to wide-scale divorces and the complete unraveling of Jewish family life in Egypt. Heeding his daughter’s warning, Amram reunites with his wife Yocheved, reinforcing the value of Jewish family despite the unbearable pressure of Egyptian torture. For this reason, Amram’s “decision” is presented anonymously: his “personal” decision to reunite with Yocheved had ripple effects for countless “other” marriages and therefore his decision is described in collective or generic terms.
This private decision ultimately reshapes human history. Amram faces a nightmarish world in which newborn babies are fed to voracious beasts. He sees no purpose in further expanding his family so he “folds his tent.” However, he soon discovers that, although we can’t always control the broader calculus of our “broken world, we can author our own personal decisions in response the surrounding chaos. We never abdicate the ability to maintain the “moral line” and make decisions of “conscience” even if the surrounding world doesn’t accommodate those decisions. For reasons which often lie beyond human comprehension, G-d sometimes allows evil to flourish. It is difficult to decipher this mystery and we often struggle to understand Divine logic in a bleak world of rampaging evil. Despite these ‘unknowns’ and the frustration it sometimes causes we are empowered to maintain our own religious and moral convictions even if we can’t calculate how these values will impact an uninviting world. Like Amram we often must act with moral courage and rely upon G-d to ‘solve’ the broader calculus.
I often ponder Holocaust survivors who quickly remarried and rebuilt their families while bringing new babies into their world. What were they thinking and how could they introduce new life into such a bleak and nightmarish world? Little did they know that the children born in the immediate aftermath of WWII would, one day, march in the fields of redemption and pioneer and new era of history. Little did they know that children born in refugee camps, or in temporary havens across the globe, would one day resettle the Jewish homeland on behalf of Jewish history.
They couldn’t have foreseen this outcome and yet they labored on under unimaginable conditions, maintaining their moral courage. Human beings often must take the initiative, exhibiting fortitude and defiance even if the arch of history is confusing and the ultimate trajectory of their actions unclear. Our inability to decipher the broader equation doesn’t acquit us from responsibility to sustain our religious and moral duties.
Chazal mention that after this reunion Yocheved – aged 130- experienced a physical rejuvenation, enabling her to become pregnant with a little boy named Moshe. Had Amram not heeded Miriam’s call, this miraculous rejuvenation may not have occurred. Even it did, it may not have mattered, as Yocheved would have remained unmarried. G-d often awaits human initiative and provides supernatural intervention only after humans have defied their conditions and launched their own redemptive cycles.
The Amram saga also reminds us that moral energy, and not headline-grabbing events, drive human history. Amram’s “epic” decision, hatched privately and without fanfare or public notice, changed history. It was a quiet decision to continue building family life under crushing conditions of persecution that turned the tide. In a modern world of fanfare and self-promotion, it is ever more crucial to remind ourselves that it is the daily ‘unnoticed’ moral decisions which alter history. Politics come and go and policies and decisions of one generation are quickly swept away by the sands of time or erased by future generations. Even military confrontations, which appear to deeply impact the shape of human experience, leave only temporary impressions upon history. More often it is the quiet moral decisions taken day after day – which go largely unnoticed- that shape our own lives and deeply impact the lives of our families and communities. The impact of these decisions can ricochet for generations- long after political and military influences have faded. With all of Pharaoh’s decrees and public posturing, it was a quiet decision of a husband and would-be father that turned the tide of history.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.