Parashat Shemot: The two mothers of Moses

Who was the role model for Moses, the great liberator who waged a successful revolution against one of the mightiest autocrats in history?

Who was the role model for Moses, the great liberator who waged a successful revolution against one of the mightiest autocrats in history? It may well have been Amram his father who, according to the Midrash, labored mightily to maintain the traditions of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob even among the Hebrew slaves. It may also have been Jochebed his mother who, according to the Midrash, was one of the midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh's order to murder all male Jewish newborns. And it may even have been his older sister Miriam, who turned her father from his plan to separate Hebrew husbands and wives, thus ensuring that no Hebrew babies would be cast into the Nile. Miriam charged her father with being even harsher than Pharaoh, since the despot only proposed to prevent Hebrew males from growing up while Amram's "divorce plan" would have prevented Hebrew girls as well as boys from being born. Amram accepted his daughter's argument, and so Moses was born. But I believe that Moses' true role model was his third parent, his gentile Egyptian "mother," who was no less a factor in his life than Amram, Jochebed and Miriam. The Bible opens chapter two of Exodus with the laconic: "A man went from the house of Levi and took a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and gave birth to a son whom they hid [from the Egyptian authorities] for three months. [The woman] couldn't hide him any longer, so she took for him a wicker basket, and smeared it with clay and pitch. She placed the child into it and placed it among the reeds at the bank of the River [Nile]. His sister stationed herself at a distance to know what would become of him" (Exodus 2: 1-4). None of these three characters are named, perhaps because Egyptian law decreed that the child was not supposed to have lived, and then neither he nor his parents and sister would ever comprise a family unit together. The Torah then describes how Pharaoh's daughter goes down to the Nile, "…and her maidens walked along the river [to allow her some privacy - Netziv]. She saw the basket among the reeds, sent forth her maidservant [the attendant who was constantly at her side] and took the basket. She opened it and saw the child, and behold, the youth was weeping. She took pity on him and said: 'This is one of the Hebrew baby boys' " (Exodus 2:5,6). Apparently Pharaoh's daughter - identified by the Midrash as Bityah, literally "daughter of God" - suspected what was in the basket, and desired to be alone when she opened it. Miriam seizes the moment to suggest calling a Hebrew wet-nurse, and brings his biological mother Jochebed, whom the Egyptian princess hires immediately. "And the boy grew up, and she [Jochebed] brought him to the daughter of Pharaoh, and he was a son to her. And she called his name Moses [Moshe], as she said: 'For I drew him from the water'" (Exodus 2:10). The Ibn Ezra asks about the origin of the name Moshe; the Hebrew literally means "I draw forth" - the active verb - but in context he should have been named "Mashui," the one who was drawn forth, in the passive. The Netziv and scholar Umberto Cassuto both note that the word moshe in Egyptian means son, which gives profound meaning to Bityah's declaration: "She called his name Moshe, son, because [she said] 'I drew him forth from the water.'" She was in effect declaring that she had earned the right to consider him her son since she took him from the water [a play on words referring both to the waters of the Nile and - by allegory - the amniotic fluid] and saved his life. From this perspective, the Egyptian princess was a true rebel against the inhuman laws of Pharaoh's regime, risking her life to save this Hebrew child. Bityah was indeed a second mother, and a magnificent model of courage, righteousness and faith for a man whose name would prove prophetic, for he too would "draw forth" the Hebrew slaves from the waters of the Reed Sea, bringing them from death to life, from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light. Moshe was thus the model for the "Moshia," messiah or savior, who will bring the nations to peace, freedom and redemption. It's only fitting that the great liberator who brought the message of freedom to the world - Jew and gentile alike - had a mother born of Hebrews and a "second" mother born of a gentile. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.