Shemot 5780-2020

“Developing Commitment to Judaism: A Lesson from an Egyptian Prince”
(updated and revised from Shemot 5760-1999)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we encounter one of the most formidable issues facing contemporary Jewish life: How to raise Jewishly-identified children in a rigorously challenging environment.

At first blush, the issue of Jewish identity would hardly be a theme likely to be found in this week’s parasha. But, clearly, Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter in an intensive Egyptian environment. Nevertheless, scripture says, Exodus: 2:11, וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה, וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם, and it came to pass in those days, and Moses grew up, and he went out to his brethren, and he saw their burdens.

Not only does Moses see the Hebrews’ burdens, but when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster striking a Jewish slave, מֵאֶחָיו , of his brothers, he looks this way and that–-sees that there is no one who will stand up to defend the Hebrew slave, and Moses then strikes the Egyptian dead, and buries him in the sand.

This clearly begs the question: How did this Egyptian prince, Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, not only develop a Jewish identity, but also a profound sense of caring for his fellow Jew?

The Biblical narrative and the elaborate Midrashim concerning the birth of Moses are well known. Pharaoh had instructed the midwives (Exodus 1:16) 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 appropriate time and murder the babies. According to tradition, (Rashi, Exodus 2:2) Moses was born, miraculously, after only 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 Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed, to look for the child. When Jochebed could no longer hide the child, she constructed an ark of bulrush, covered it with pitch outside, and placed it on the river, leaving Moses’ sister, Miriam, to watch the child.

According to the Midrash, the Al-mighty caused a great heat wave to strike Egypt, and all the people went down to bathe in the river. When the daughter of Pharaoh, who had also gone to the river, beheld the ark floating in the water, she instructed her maidens to bring the floating vessel to her, adding, that perhaps, there is a child who can be saved.

The Midrash maintains that the handmaidens were loath to go against Pharaoh’s decree that all Jewish male children should be drowned into the river.

The rabbis, cited by Rashi, on Exodus 2:5, employ a homiletical interpretation on the text, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ , which literally means, that Pharaoh’s daughter sent her handmaiden to take the child. Rather than translate אַמָה –“ama” as handmaiden, they interpret the Hebrew word “ama” to mean “hand”–that Pharaoh’s daughter’s hand was miraculously lengthened, and that she herself was able to reach the diminutive ark to save the child.

To add a little intrigue to the story,  Pirkei d’Rav Eliezer 48, records that Pharaoh’s daughter had long been stricken with a dreaded dermatological disease, and that when she touched the ark she was suddenly healed. When she opened the ark and saw the child’s shining face, she had compassion on him and said, Exodus 2:6, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה , “this is surely one of the Hebrew children.” The Midrash maintains that when G-d saw how compassionate Pharaoh’s daughter was, He gave her a special name, בתי-ה –“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 be rewarded with Eternal life in the Garden of Eden, the Garden of G-d.

The Midrash continues, stating that Bitya tried in vain to have the child nurse from an Egyptian woman, but he refused. Miriam, Moses’ sister, who was watching him from her hiding place in the bulrushes, emerged and said (Exodus 2:7) הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָאתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת מִן הָעִבְרִיֹּת , Shall I go call a nursemaid for you from the Jewish women?” Miriam called Jochebed, Moses’ mother, and Bitya charged her with nursing the child. Jochebed took the child and raised him for two years. After he was weaned, Moses was brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter. How painful it must have been for Jochebed to give up her child.

From that day on, Moses remained in Pharaoh’s house. He was raised there, educated there, and nurtured in Egyptian culture. According to tradition, Moses was 20 years old when he went out and acknowledged his Jewish brethren.

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, by saving Moses who is clearly a Jewish child. Bitya’s actions indicate that she is made of different stuff than the cruel Egyptians who relished 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. That is the likely reason why they attributed all of 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.

Citizens of contemporary times know how true this message rings as we see so many children who are being raised with indifferent or absentee parents, and yet we wonder why so many young people are so unsettled and frequently turn against the parents’ values. Clearly, the formative years are invaluable. Those who trade away those precious early years for a few extra shekels, are making a fateful error. Judaism has long maintained that “quality time” without “quantity time,” simply doesn’t work.

The experience of Moses 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 Jewish parochial school education was divisive and un-American. In retrospect, we now see, with the tragic statistics on assimilation, how misguided those leaders were.

I have long maintained that one cannot really “overdose” on Judaism or on Jewish education. Parents who are passionate in their Judaism, given the impact of assimilation, will hopefully end up with children who are moderate. Parents who are moderate about their Judaism, are likely to wind up with children who are casual. And, those who are casual in their Jewish practice, may wind up, G-d forbid, with Episcopalian grandchildren!

Children who are given a firm basic Jewish education, even if they choose later in life to forsake tradition, will always have an opportunity to choose later in life to rejoin that tradition. The tragedy regarding the large numbers 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 were never given a basic Jewish education and never had positive, joyous, Jewish experiences.

Positive values are skills that need to be nurtured. A child who has never been encouraged to put a nickel, a dime, a quarter into a pushka (charity box) on a regular basis is unlikely to feel anything special for the poor or the homeless. A child who has never felt the warm embrace of parents on Shabbat or heard beautiful zemirot sung at their Shabbat tables are likely to be far more attracted to contemporary pop music and the haunting  Christmas songs. A child who has never felt the excitement of Purim or Simchat Torah, will be easily swept away by the drinking and ribaldry of the annual secular New Year’s Eve celebration. This is the tragedy that we face today; and the tragedy is compounded, because it did not have to happen!

What role does Midrash play in Torah study? Midrashim are, after all, only legendary interpretation of the Biblical verses, yet they almost always come to teach powerful and profound pedagogic, often moral, messages. In this instance, the Midrash teaches that there was a secret to Moses’ proud and powerful Jewish identity. His identity was a reflection of the commitment he developed during those two important years that he spent with his mother, and the extraordinary commitment that Bitya conveyed to him during his sojourn 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 Moses and his remarkable religious inspiration and commitment serve as a source for all, of inspiration and commitment to Jewish learning, inspiration and commitment to Jewish growth, inspiration and commitment to Jewish life.

May you be blessed.