Parasha Beshalah: The courage to be free

Paralleling our national birth and rebirth is the birth and rebirth of "Moshe Rabbenu," Moses, the individual who understood and communicated God's eternal Torah to Israel and the world.

parsha beshalah 88 (photo credit: )
parsha beshalah 88
(photo credit: )
If the Egyptian experience was the most seminal in the development of the nation of Israel, then the splitting of the Reed Sea (Yam Suf is literally translated as Reed - not Red - Sea) was the zenith of that climactic event. The Song of the Sea is memorized by children in Jewish day schools, and we even recite it as part of our daily, Sabbath and festival morning prayers. What emerges from this paean of praise to God is that our message of freedom is meant for the entire world; Pharaohs, despots and even more local rulers must understand that only one Lord rules the world, and all His children must be free. That is the point of the verses quoted above. The Hebrew People was born with the "Covenant between the Pieces" (Genesis 15), when Abraham, founder of our faith-family-nation, was promised progeny and a land with borders; the Israelite People was born again as a nation with a mission when we emerged from the Reed Sea, freed from slavery and inspired with a message for the world. After all, birth or rebirth is always associated with water, and therefore Jewish conversions as well as Christian baptisms feature water. Indeed, the Song of the Sea concludes with a vision of our planting a temple to the Lord on the mountain of our inheritance (Genesis 15:17, 18) - the very temple toward which our prophets tell us the gentile nations will stream to learn God's plan for universal peace, freedom and tranquility (Isaiah 2, Micah 4). Paralleling our national birth and rebirth is the birth and rebirth of "Moshe Rabbenu," Moses, the individual who understood and communicated God's eternal Torah to Israel and the world. If we study Moses's emergence onto the stage of history, the parallels to the miracle and message of the splitting of the sea become inspiringly apparent. The birth of Moses is described in the second chapter of Exodus: A man from the House of Levi takes a wife from the House of Levi; she conceives and gives birth to a son, whom she hides from the Egyptians for three months. When he cannot be hidden any longer, he is placed in an ark smeared with clay and pitch, and the ark is set afloat "in the reeds" (besuf) of the Nile River. His sister Miriam is stationed nearby to see what will happen. The rebirth of Moses begins when Pharaoh's daughter goes down to bathe in the Nile, and "she sees a basket among the reeds (hasuf); she sends away her maidservant," takes the Hebrew baby for whom she feels compassion, and allows Miriam to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for him. Pharaoh's daughter does not give birth to Moses, but she does save his life. And in saving his life, she endangers her own. After all, her father Pharaoh has ordered all Hebrew baby boys to be cast into the Nile; in rescuing this infant, she is defying her father's decree. History confirms that totalitarian despots never hesitated to execute even close family members who dared rebel against them. Indeed, the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, author of the Ha'emek Davar biblical commentary) suggests that once Pharaoh's daughter saw the floating ark and suspected the existence of a Hebrew baby within it, she sent away her closest maidservant (Exodus 2:5) so that when she - Pharaoh's daughter - would rescue him, no one would witness the event to inform her father (the Bible had already testified that her other maidservants had left her to walk along the edge of the Nile). Pharaoh's daughter emerges as a courageous heroine. This fortunate rebirth concludes with the giving of a name: "And the lad grew, and she [the wet-nurse, Jochebed, his biological mother] took him to Pharaoh's daughter; he became for her [Pharaoh's daughter] a son and she called his name Moshe. And she said, 'It is because I drew him out from the water'" (Exodus 2:10). Once again, I believe the Netziv provides the truest interpretation of this verse. The Ancient Egyptian word moshe means son (Hebrew, ben); Pharoah's daughter names him "son," because she earned her motherhood by risking her life for him. At this point in the narrative, there is no verbal connection between the name Moshe and the Hebrew meshitihu, "I drew him out"; after all, the name is Egyptian and the verb is in Hebrew. However, the Bible is clearly making reference to the double entendre: Moshe the son (in Egyptian) will also draw forth (moshe, in Hebrew) his people, the Israelites, from Egyptian servitude as well as from the Reed Sea. Just as the daughter of Pharaoh drew forth (and saved) a Hebrew child from the reeds of the Nile, so will Moshe draw forth and save his nation from the Reed Sea; and he who learned the courage to rebel against evil totalitarianism from an Egyptian princess will communicate a Torah that will teach the entire world to have the courage to be free - even if it means putting your life on the line! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.