Parashat Shemot, the Book of Exodus’ first portion, turns from the story of our patriarchs and their families to the story of the nation. This story begins with hardship and suffering. Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, worries about the growth of the Jewish nation in Egypt and decides to enslave them. He forces the Hebrews, as the Jews were called then, to build the cities of Pithom and Raamses. But the Hebrews continue to multiply, so Pharaoh decides on a very cruel solution. He issues the command to throw all male babies born to Hebrew women into the Nile.
A baby at risk of murder was Moses, the son of Yocheved and Amram. The fate of Moses, who would grow up to become the leader who took the nation out of Egypt, was supposed to be like that of all other male Hebrews born at that time. His mother hid him for three months. But when she could no longer do so, in despair, she placed him in a tiny basket and put it among the reeds on the edge of the Nile, hoping that whoever finds the baby won’t realize he was a Hebrew baby and his life would be saved.
And who was it who found the baby? No less than Pharaoh’s daughter. The Egyptian princess had gone down to the river with her maidservants and suddenly came upon the little basket floating in the water. She adopted the baby and raised him, despite understanding that the baby was a Hebrew baby who should legally have been killed. And thus, Moses – who was to be the redeemer of the Jewish nation – was raised in the palace of the Egyptian king.
An innocent verse with a deeper meaning
But we would like to focus on an innocent verse that describes those first moments when Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket bearing three-month-old Moses: “Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe, to the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant (amata), and she took it” (Exodus 2:5).
“Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe, to the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant (amata), and she took it”Exodus 2:5
The phrase “she sent her maidservant (amata)” is interpreted by the sages in two ways. Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemiya disagree (about the definition of the word amata). One says it means her arm, and one says it means her maidservant (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 12). Later, it is explained that according to the opinion that it was her arm, a miracle occurred and her arm extended until it reached the basket and she was able to pull it toward her.
Let us look at the root of this disagreement. One opinion states that pulling Moses’s basket in from the Nile was done miraculously; the other states it was done naturally by sending one of the maidservants. In reality, both convey important messages and they are equally correct.
On one hand, a person must act even when he feels alone, without help from God. When a person is sure his choice is moral and correct, he must do everything to implement that choice and do the right thing. Therefore, we must present Pharaoh’s daughter as someone who acted naturally. She sent her maidservant to pull in the basket.
On the other hand, a person can be sure that when he acts properly, he will merit siyata deshmaya – help from heaven. We may not get a miracle like Pharaoh’s daughter, whose arm extended to reach the basket. But help from heaven is not necessarily miracles that deviate from the laws of nature. We must believe that when we do not despair, when we do our utmost to reach the right goals, we will merit help we didn’t expect.
Pharaoh’s daughter is one of the courageous women we meet in parashat Shemot, alongside the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Pu’ah, Yocheved and Miriam. The Torah presents her as a role model whose compassion led her to raise Moses in opposition to her father’s cruel decrees. Pharaoh’s daughter glows in the sky of heroes alongside thousands of women and men who courageously chose to follow their conscience and stand up to wicked laws.
There have been such people throughout history, many during World War II. We call them the Righteous Among the Nations. The Jewish nation is forever grateful to them and learns from their altruistic acts. ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.