The people and the Book: A study in heroism

The daughter of Egypt’s king demonstrates the falsity of those who claim that their circumstances prevent them from taking the action.

egypt (do not publish again) (photo credit: avi katz)
egypt (do not publish again)
(photo credit: avi katz)
The weekly Torah portion Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1) is read on Shabbat, December 25.
THOUGH SHE IS NOT NAMED IN THE ONE BIBLICAL passage in which she appears (Exodus 2:5-10), the sages identify the daughter of the Pharaoh of the Exodus as Bitya (1 Chronicles 4:18). Thus, she is transformed from the anonymous daughter of an anonymous Pharaoh to the daughter of God: Bit-Ya.
She earns this extraordinary change of fate through a heroic deed: She saves the Hebrew baby whom she saw floating in a reed basket on the River Nile. Some sages tell us that she knew he was a Hebrew child because of his circumcision; others speculate that she realized he was special because he radiated the Divine Presence and that her ailments were cured when she touched him or even just his basket.
All Hebrew males had been subjected to a decree of death by her father (Exodus 1:16). We can thus appreciate the measure of this young woman’s heroism: Her action was not merely in protest against this edict, but a challenge to the entire Egyptian structure of authority, which was invested in her father. The main Talmudic source of these legends observes that she was even opposed by her maids-in-waiting, who were subsequently killed by the angel Gabriel for their insolence (TB Sota 12).
Bitya’s immediate reward was to name the baby she had just rescued – Moses – which the text derives from the verb to draw out of the water (mishitehoo) (ibid 10). Though Yocheved gave birth to Moses, it was Bitya who merited giving him the name that he retained, since it was she who raised him (Sanhedrin 19; Shmot Rabba 1:26).
The sages (Sota 12 and parallel midrashim) elaborate on Bitya’s singular merits, although the text itself provides no indication of a religious motive behind her brave act. She does not cite the God of the Hebrews nor any other deity. Rather, pity or curiosity draws her to the crying child (Shmot 2:6). Some say she was going to bathe in the water in order to cleanse herself of the idolatrous customs of her father, who regarded the Nile as a god to be worshipped (TB Sota 12). Another speculation in the same tractate is that God purposely made the day so hot that Bitya was forced to go to the water to cool off. Another source suggests she was using the water as a mikveh to effect her conversion – a typical anachronistic rabbinic spin on a biblical narrative.
Perhaps it is her rebelliousness against the whole Egyptian state apparatus, which determines that she has remained unmarried while in the court of her father. Who would want such a headstrong lady? And, after adopting this baby as her own, a single mother to boot! But fear not... The sages, in their eagerness to show that good is rewarded in this world as well as in the next, marry her off to no less than Caleb Ben-Yefuneh: “Let one rebel – Caleb who defied his fellow spies – take as a wife one who defied her own father’s decree.”
As one sage added – “this one saved the flock, the other one the shepherd” (Vayikrah Rabbah 1:3). In other sources (e.g., Shmot Rabba 20:4), God grants her Paradise “in her lifetime.”
Possibly the two sources are linked: imaginatively, the sources marry Bitya to Calev as a reward for her righteous behavior, and this marriage is a form of earthly paradise.
Ultimately, the sages attempt to learn something deeply radical in this story, namely that if someone is genuinely doing something for the sake of Almighty God, he or she can defy the entire world and win. It further highlights a fundamental teaching of the Torah, namely that each person is accountable for his or her own actions, and that children do not die for their parents’ misdeeds or vice versa. The daughter of Egypt’s king, moreover, demonstrates the falsity of those who claim that their circumstances prevent them from taking the action required to uphold standards of decency and truth. A person who responds to one baby’s cry is worth a pyramid of philosophy and rationalizations.
Interestingly, none of the women who appear in this part of the narrative have their own names. Although the “Hebrew maid servants” (Exodus 1:15) have names – Shifra and Pua – these are clearly Egyptian names; it is the sages who identify them as Miriam and Yocheved (TB Sota 11b). It is possible that these names are “underground names,” to protect them from the dangers of a ruthless regime. In this sense, too, Pharaoh’s daughter emerges as the greater heroine. Unlike Yocheved and Miriam, she cannot hide her identity; she is exactly who she is, the rebellious daughter of Pharaoh.
Did she really know Miriam and Yocheved’s true identities? It is possible to conjecture that she did but that court etiquette, or some deeper feminine intuition, ignored it. Let the men get on with the business of running the world (often poorly) and leave the women to put it back in order, quietly and with no fuss. The women did what was necessary in a world otherwise gone mad and bereft of hope.
That is heroism.
Mordechai Beck is a Jerusalem-based writer, artist and teacher.