Parashat Shemot 5779

Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 28 December 2018

The first words of the Book of Exodus which we begin reading this week describe the child Moses in simple terms: he is tov – ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ as some translations describe him.  The midrash says this means that his name was Tov or Toviah (‘goodness’), that he was fit for prophecy and that the whole house became flooded with light when he was born (Exodus Rabbah 1:20).  His birth here at the beginning of the second book of the Torah is connected with those first moments of creation: ‘And God saw the light that it was tov (‘good’)’ (Genesis 1:4).  In this way, Jewish tradition recognises the significance of Moses’ birth and a new chapter in the story of the Jewish people – as though a new creation is taking place, of a people whose destiny will be in the hands of God.

The first sound we hear him make is his crying as he lies in the basket made by his mother and placed among the reeds by the bank of the River Nile.  His weeping touches the daughter of Pharaoh who takes pity on him.

Why does he cry? Is it because he is encased inside the wicker basket and enveloped in darkness, lying alone without the comforting voice of his mother, or the arms of his father?  Or is he perhaps hungry? How long has he been in the basket – for hours or days? For a baby of three months, what does it matter, every moment of his distress is a moment of trauma and abandonment.  Perhaps he is frightened – later on, the Torah records for the first time, Moses’ emotional reaction to the discovery that he has killed an Egyptian taskmaster whom he caught beating a Hebrew slave. He is ‘frightened’ and flees from Egypt to the land of Midian.

The salty water of his tears becomes both his salvation and his downfall.  It is from the waters of the Nile that his life is saved and because of his weeping that the daughter of Pharaoh takes pity on him and brings him up as her own child.  Later on, he will escape from Egypt by himself and come to rest beside a well of water, encountering his future wife Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest for whom he works as a shepherd.   It is the miraculous parting of the waves at the Sea of Reeds that allows the Israelites to cross through on dry land and escape Egyptian tyranny. It is because God provided a well of water in the desert that the Israelites survived their forty-year travail in the desert.  Yet, at the very end of his life, water is to become his downfall. His impatience with the people provokes him to smite the rock that is to pour forth its waters and it is on account of this that God punishes him, telling him he will not see the Promised Land.

Perhaps it is those first tears shed as an infant in the basket on the River Nile that are tears, not of immediate abandonment by his mother, but that foretell this story of deliverance and defeat – the redemption and sufferings of the Jewish people and of humanity at large.

For this is the nature of human life.  It is not that we are all like Moses who rose to the highest degree of prophecy, who alone ‘came near to the Eternal One’, as Maimonides states (Guide for the Perplexed II, 32).  But, that there are in our lives highs and lows, achievements and triumphs, defeats and losses and sometimes the fracture of expectation.  

Our Jewish past and the values that are enshrined in the teachings of our people help us to learn how to become resilient, how to recognise what is good and beautiful.  Perhaps it was this that his mother had to learn as she abandoned her child to the waters of the Nile – that out of the greatest tragedy she could imagine, the potential loss of her child – might emerge a miraculous rescue and through her son, the deliverance of her people.

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