Shemot: Of Rachmanut and Redemption

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Nile Reeds
15 Jan 2009

For about three months, Moshe had a normal childhood. Then, under Pharaoh’s decree, mother Yocheved weepingly sets him afloat upon the Nile river. A most traumatic beginning manifests itself in a deliciously ironic and remarkable way as Pharaoh’s daughter, Bityah finds the basket as she “coincidentally” goes out to bathe.

Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe by the river, while her maidens walked along the river’s edge. She saw the basket among the reeds and she sent her maidservant and she took it. She opened it and saw him, the child, and behold! a youth (na’ar) was crying. She took pity on him and said, ” This one is from the Hebrew boys.” (miyaldei haivrim zeh). [The infant’s] sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call to you a nursing [mother] from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” “Go,” said Pharaoh’s daughter to her. The young girl went and called the child’s mother.

In this quietly dramatic scene, much is left between the lines. Consider:

  1. Princess Bityah apparently doesn’t know right away that Moshe is Jewish. Something then happens that leads her to exclaim his Jewishness. We are not sure what it is.
  2. The descriptive term for Moshe switches from yeled (child) to na’ar (youth); the latter implying a lad, not a babe – a strange term for a three month old child.
  3. When identifying the child she exclaims “this one is from the Hebrew boys”, a somewhat oblique (and yinglish) way of saying – he is a Hebrew child

First, a few classic answers to our first two questions:

a. How does Bityah know that baby Moshe is Jewish?

  1. Ibn Ezra, Rashbam (1) – She saw him, i.e. determined his gender, and saw that he was circumcised.
  2. Ramban (1st explanation) – logic dictated that the boy was sent afloat to escape Paroh’s decree – ergo he must be Jewish (2).
  3. Rashi – She saw the presence of the shechina. A special light emanated from his basket. (The phrase mentioned earlier that Moshe’s mother saw “he was good” (ki tov) hearkens back to Creation, about which the Torah states that God saw that the light was good.
  4. Ohr HaChaim – Moshe refused to nurse from the non-Jewish midwives

b. Why the term na’ar, implying a lad?

  1. Rashi (3) – His voice sounded like that of a lad – not of a baby
  2. Rabbeinu Bechaye (4)– His mother bedecked the the basket with a chupat neurim, a canopy of youth
  3. Ramban – the word na’ar does not only imply lad, but refers to one’s whole period of childhood.

Chizkuni/Da’at Zekeinim offer a novel approach that moves me greatly. A cute prelude:

Two Jews were walking down a dark street when they heard footsteps behind them. They turned around and saw that they were being followed by two hoodlums.

One Jew said to the other, “Oy vey, we’re in trouble now. There are two of them, and we’re alone.”

Jews are one. Yes, Jews argue and suffer from disunity, but all the sad stuff of labels and schisms, so pronounced in contemporary Judaism can not belie the absolute truth of our essential unity. Recently, a friend, on his family trip, walked into a store in Yucca Valley (not to be confused with Monsey) – to be greeted by a covert Jew who tipped his hand with a shalom aleichem and a smile as he noticed the other’s yarmulke. These type of stories happen all the time, in so many directions. Consider among thousands of real life examples:

.. the consistent sacrifice that tens of thousands of Jewish and not-yet-religious soldiers manifest for their religious brethren.

.. the incredible chesed of the Satmar community, whose bikur cholim in New York is legendary and blind to religious ideology;

When it really matters, our kinship and deep existential connection binds us tighter than any other people. Jewish hospitality and chessed are simply without peer; we produce a philanthropy, generosity of spirit and kindness that is grossly disproportionate to our statistical presence within general society. Incredibly, some are embarrassed by these words, when in fact, with humility, we must teach our children and the world, the outstanding and unique attributes of Jewish chessed and rachmonut (mercy)– the very essence of our definition (5)(6).

So how does Pharaoh’s daughter know Moshe is Jewish? Through rachmonut of course.

Both Chizkuni and Da’as Zekeinim teach that the na’ar (lad) is not Moshe, but rather Aharon, Moshe’s slightly older brother. As she pickes up the babe, she hears weeping behind the bushes. Aharon is probably trying his best to not make a sound. She sees Moshe, and then hears the cries of Aharon, proceeds to turn in his direction and instantly identify the family as Jewish, a family one where rachmonut is so in the bones that the 3 year old brother not only has the innate awareness to cry, but simply can’t stop. At this point, still moved and focused on Aharon – she exclaims, that one (Moshe) is most certainly from the Jewish people (7). So moved by this innate quality, she ultimately protects the redeemer of Israel, and joins the nation marrying Kalev, the head of Yehuda

Moshe, saved by rachmonut passes it forward as he exhibits the same heroic mercy in feeling the plight of his brethren. It is for this reason, says the midrash that he is chosen to be the redeemer.

A bad Jewish joke proclaims that by the Jews, the fetus become viable when it graduates medical school. As we plod through an exile of “me”-pods, “me”-phones and sundry narcissistic paraphernalia, we might remind ourselves and our children of our legacy as rachamonim b’nei rechamonim, merciful ones the children of merciful ones, – for within that formulation is found our redemption.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Cf. Sotah 12a in the name of R. Yosi b. Chanina
2. Cf. Maharsha, Sotah ibid, who questions this approach on the basis of the gemara that states that all Egyptian males was included in the decree (at this stage)
3. Sotah, ibid in the name of R. Yehuda
4. Sotah, ibid in the name of R. Nechemya
5. Cf. Yevamos 78.
6. Cf. that records a fascinating story: On October 8, 1913, the Beilis trial opened. The indictment accused “Menachem Mendel the son of Tuviah Beilis, 39,” of having murdered “together with other people, not discovered, under duress of mysterious religious obligations and rituals, one Andrei Yustchinsky.”Jew and non-Jew in Russia and around the world awaited the outcome with breathless anticipation.
In short order, the trial became an examination of the Talmud’s view on various issues. The prosecutor was prepared with an avalanche of quotes from the Halachic (legal) and the Aggadic (homiletic) portions of the Talmud. Anti-Semites around the world had done their homework and had rallied to the cause of condemning the Jewish people and the Jewish religion in a court of law.
The lawyer that headed the defense team was the legendary Oscar Gruzenberg. He knew that the prosecution’s attack was going to be directed against the Talmud and other works of Jewish scholarship and that the expertise in devising a defense would have to be provided by the rabbis. Rabbi Mazeh, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, was chosen to head the rabbinic advisory team for the defense..
The crucial question was posed: “How dare the Jewish sages claim that [the Jewish people] are called adam, man, while the idol worshipers are not called adam?”
The illustrious Rabbi Meir Shapiro taught “that kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for each other. (Shavuot 39) According to this principle, it stands to reason that the fate of Mendel Beilis, for example, which is in essence the fate of one single Jew, nevertheless touches the entire Jewish people. The Jewish people tremble for his welfare and would do everything in their power to remove the prisoner’s collar from him. What would have been the reaction of the gentile world if one specific gentile had been accused of a similar crime and was standing trial in a faraway country? Clearly, no more than the people of his own town would show any interest in the libel. Perhaps, at most, people in other parts of his own country would criticize the proceedings. But people in other countries? They certainly wouldn’t take a personal interest in him.
“This, therefore, is the difference between the Jewish people and all other peoples. The Jews are considered adam, the singular form of the word man, an indication of the extreme solidarity of the Jewish people. For us, when one Mendel Beilis is put on trial, the entire Jewish world stands at his side like one man. Not so the other peoples of the world. They may very well be considered anashim, the plural form of the word man, but they cannot be considered adam, a nation that stands together as a single man.”
7. How remarkable is the contrast to the Torah’s description of Hagar, who while walking in the desert with Yishamel, fears his impending death [Bereishis, 21:16] – “she went and sat about [the distance] of a bow-shot away, saying “Let me not see the lad die.” Hagar’s response is of course the natural one for why should she subject herself to such pain.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.