“Commitment to Judaism: A lesson from Moshe”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we encounter one of the most challenging situations of contemporary Jewish life: How to raise Jewishly identified children in an increasingly assimilated environment. On the surface, it may not be quite obvious that this problem is part of this week’s parasha, but clearly Moshe was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in an Egyptian environment. Nevertheless, scripture says (Exodus: 2:11) “Va’yehi ba’yamim ha’haim, va’yig’dal Moshe,” and it came to pass in those days, and Moshe grew up, “Va’yay’tzay el achav, va’yar b’siv’lo’tam,” and he went out to his brethren, and he saw their burdens. Not only does Moshe see their burdens, but when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster striking a Jewish slave, may’eh’chav, of his brothers, he looks this way and that–-sees that there is no man who will stand up to defend the Israelite, and Moshe then strikes the Egyptian dead, and buries him in the sand. All this begs the question: How did this Egyptian prince Moshe, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, develop a Jewish identity and such a profound sense of caring for the Jews?

We all know the famous story and the elaborate Midrashim concerning the birth of Moshe. Pharaoh had instructed the midwives to kill all the Jewish male children. The midwives kept a careful record of the pregnant Jewish women so that they could come at the predicted time of birth and murder the children. According to tradition, Moshe was born, miraculously, after six months, and survived. That is why his mother was able to hide him for three months. Every day, the Egyptians would come to the house of Moshe’s parents, Amram and Yocheved, to look for the child. When Yocheved could no longer hide the child, she constructed an ark of bullrush, covered it with pitch outside, and placed it on the river, leaving Moshe’s sister, Miriam, to watch. According to the Midrash, G-d caused a great heat wave to strike Egypt, and all of the people went down to bathe in the river. When the daughter of Pharaoh, who had also gone down to the river, beheld the ark floating in the water, she instructed her maidens to bring the ark to her, adding that perhaps there is a child who can be saved. The Midrash maintains that the handmaidens were loathe to go against Pharaoh’s decree that any Jewish male child who was born should be thrown into the river and drowned. The rabbis, employ homiletical interpretation on the verse in Exodus 2:5, “Va’tishlach et ah’mata, va’tee’kah’cheh’ha,” Rather then translate “ama” as handmaiden-–that Pharaoh’s daughter sent her handmaiden to take the child, they interpret “ama” rather as “hand,”– that Pharaoh’s daughter’s hand was miraculously lengthened, and was able to reach the little ark to take the child.

To add a little intrigue to the story, one of the Midrashim records that Pharaoh’s daughter had long been stricken with some type of dreaded dermatological disease, and that when she touched the ark she was suddenly healed. In any case, when she opened the ark and saw the child’s shining face, she had compassion on him and said (Exodus 2:6), “Mee’yal’day ha’ee’vreeyim zeh,” this is surely one of the Jewish children. The Midrash says that when G-d saw how compassionate Pharaoh’s daughter was, He gave her a special name, Bitya, which, in Hebrew, means Bat Y-ah, daughter to G-d, and promised that death would have no dominion over her, that she would come in Eternal life to the Garden of Eden, the Garden of G-d.

The Midrash continues, stating that Bitya tried to get the child to nurse from Egyptian women, but that he refused. Miriam, Moshe’s sister who was watching him from her hiding place in the bullrushes, emerges and says (Exodus 2:7) “Ha’ay’laych v’ka’ratee lach eesha may’neh’ket min ha’eev’ree’yot?” Shall I go call a nursemaid for you from the Jewish women? Yocheved, Moshe’s mother comes, and Bitya charges her to nurse the child. Yocheved takes the child and raises him for two years. After he is weaned, Moshe is brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter. How painful it must have been for Yocheved to give up her child.

From that day on, Moshe remains in Pharaoh’s house. He is raised there, educated there, and nurtured in Egyptian culture. According to tradition, Moshe was 20 years old when he goes out and acknowledges his Jewish brethren.

We need to ask ourselves, why is the Midrash so impressed with Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, to the extent that G-d himself gives her a new name and bestows upon her a promise of eternal life? Clearly, there is a secret heroine in this story, and Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, is that heroine! Bitya, Midrash or not, defies her father, and saves what is clearly a Jewish child. Her actions indicate that she is made of a different stuff than the cruel Egyptians who relish persecuting Jews.

No doubt the rabbis of the Midrash were also perplexed as to how a child, who was raised for 18 years as an Egyptian, could feel so powerfully connected to the Jewish people. Clearly they attribute all this to Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter.

The Communist leader, V.I. Lenin, had a motto: Give me four years to teach the children, and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted. The implication being that the formative education of a child is the most significant and most enduring. We citizens of modernity know how true that is as we see the “latchkey generation” being raised without parents, and yet we wonder why so many children are so unsettled and often so violent. Clearly, the formative years are invaluable. Those who trade away those precious early years for a few extra shekels are making a fateful mistake. Judaism has long maintained that “quality time” without “quantity time” simply doesn’t work.

The experience of Moshe in Pharaoh’s palace also underscores the value of intensive Jewish education. For many years the Jewish establishment in America derided intensive Jewish education, feeling that parochial school education was divisive and un-American. In retrospect we now see, with the tragic statistics on assimilation, how misguided these leaders were. I have always maintained that one cannot really overdose on Judaism or Jewish education. Those who aim to be passionate in their Judaism–-given the impact of assimilation, end up moderate. Those who aim to be moderate in their Judaism–end up casual. And those who are casual in their Judaism–wind up, G-d forbid, with Episcopalian grandchildren! When children are given solid basic Jewish educations, even if they choose later in life not to be committed to tradition, they at least have had an opportunity to choose. The tragedy of the large number of young Jews who are walking away from their Judaism today is that they are walking away not because they are disenchanted with Judaism, but because they never had a choice–they never had positive Jewish educational experiences.

A child who’s never been nurtured to put a nickel, a dime, a quarter into a pushka on a regular basis is unlikely to feel anything special for the Jewish homeless in New York, Chicago, or Israel. A child who has never felt the warm Shabbat embrace of parents on a weekly basis will be far more attracted to Pavarotti singing “Ave Maria” and Celine Dion singing Christmas carols. A child who’s never felt the sense of adventure of making kiddush in a sukkah will be easily swept away by the drinking and ribaldry of New Year’s Eve and the coming Millennium celebration scheduled for Friday night, December 31, 1999. This is the tragedy that we face today; and the tragedy is compounded, because it need not happen!

What is the role of Midrash? Is it but a legendary interpretation of the Bible, yet it always comes to teach us a powerful and profound pedagogic message. In this instance it teaches us that there was a secret to Moshe’s powerful Jewish identity. It was the commitment that he learned in those two important years that he spent with his mother, and the commitment that Bitya conveyed to him in Pharaoh’s palace. The philosopher, the late Eliezer Berkovits, was once asked, “Who is a Jew?” He responded insightfully, “A Jew is one who has Jewish grandchildren.”

May the story of Moshe serve as a source of inspiration and a springboard of commitment for us–Inspiration and commitment to Jewish life, inspiration and commitment to Jewish learning, inspiration and commitment to Jewish growth.

May you be blessed.