Parashat Shemot, the first parasha of the Book of Exodus, tells us about the children of Israel in Egypt.
In the generations since Jacob went down to Egypt, they had multiplied and grew stronger. The Egyptians became anxious about the political aspirations of this large Hebrew minority. A new pharaoh ruling Egypt incites his nation against the Israelites and gets legitimization and assistance in enslaving an entire nation in hard labor.
Thus, Jacob’s family went from being the darlings of the Egyptian monarchy to its sworn enemy, enslaved in inhumane conditions.
The most horrific of the pharaoh’s decrees is the one he instructed the Israelite midwives and the entire Egyptian nation to do:
“Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile, and every daughter you shall allow to live.” (Exodus 1:22)
The pharaoh cruelly commanded that all male babies be thrown into the Nile, hoping to sever the Hebrew nation’s future. During this calamitous period of time, we read about a man and woman from the Tribe of Levi who marry one another. We later learn these were Amram and Jochebed, the parents of Moses, the leader that is destined to liberate the nation from Egypt and accompany them until the gates of the Promised Land. Jewish sages say there was great drama behind the story of this marriage.
Amram was the great man of his generation. Once he saw that the wicked pharaoh said: “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, he said: ‘We are laboring for nothing.’ He arose and divorced his wife. All arose and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him: ‘Father, your decree is harsher than that of the pharaoh, as the pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed on the males and on the females...’ Amram arose and brought back his wife, and all others arose and brought back their wives” (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 12, 1).
Due to the king’s decree to kill all male babies, Amram – who was an important and admired man – decided to divorce his wife, since he saw no point to married life at a time like this or in having children who would be cruelly taken. This divorce led to a wave of divorces in the Israelite society.
Amram’s daughter, Miriam, did not let that be. She claimed that by his deed, he was enacting a harsher decree than that of the Egyptian ruler. The pharaoh had commanded to kill the male babies, but Amram’s act would also eliminate female babies who would never be born.
The thought behind her words is very powerful. She was saying that even when the situation looks dire, hope should not be lost. Even when it seems there is no future, we should still choose life at all costs.
Therefore, Miriam asked her father to return to his marriage, to allow for babies to be born, despite everything. Indeed, Amram and Jochebed remarried in a festive ceremony.
We found a similar phenomenon also throughout the Holocaust when Jewish couples got married despite their dire circumstances, choosing life even while oppressed or in hiding, in ghettos or death camps.
Miriam’s attitude was expressed in another event, which was no less dramatic. After they remarried, Amram and Jochebed had a lively son whom they were forced to hide to keep him from being discovered and thrown into the Nile.
After three months, when they could no longer hide him from their Egyptian neighbors, Jochebed took her baby, prepared him a special basket and put it on the banks of the Nile. This was a step taken out of desperation. Jochebed thought that if her baby had any chance at all of surviving the cruel decree, it would be in the Nile. Jochebed put the basket down and left.
But Miriam, the baby’s sister, stayed. She stood from a distance and watched. Even when the situation was one of complete despair and it seemed that the baby’s fate would be no different from that of others like him, Miriam did not give up. She continued to hope.
Indeed, a miracle happened. The basket with the baby was taken by none other than the pharaoh’s daughter who decided to save the baby despite her father’s laws. She named the baby Moses and he later became the leader who liberated the children of Israel from Egypt.
When we read about the choice of life that brought Moses into the world, and about the hope that accompanied him on his hopeless journey, it is no wonder he was the one chosen by God to liberate the people from their despairing slavery by the Egyptian empire and to help turn them into the nation of God.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.