I was reading the beginning of Shmot where we first learn about the Jews’ slavery and Moshe’s birth. It is interesting to ask ourselves: why does the story start here? Why are the details of Moshe’s birth significant to the story of the Jewish people’s redemption from Israel?
I think the specific vignettes are very telling; let me share arc of the story with you. We start with the midwives who disobey Pharaoh, making excuses as to why they did not kill the Jewish babies as they are born. Then we are told of Moshe’s parents’ decision to marry, and his mother’s hiding of Moshe for three months, after which Miriam guards over him as he floats down the Nile. Lastly, Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moshe and saves him.
We can read this as simple narrative describing how Moshe is born but I think each vignette is carefully chosen. Each character (all women) – the midwives, Moshe’s mother, Miriam, and the daughter of Pharaoh- each make a decision which goes against the grain or is downright risky in the name of morality or saving a life. Starting with the midwives who outright disobey Pharaoh’s command to the daughter of Pharaoh who knowingly raises a Jewish boy, destined for death, right under her father’s nose.
This trajectory all comes into focus when the next story in the text tells of Moshe’s first moral and risky decision. Moshe steps out of the palace of Pharaoh, identifies with his “brothers,” and kills an Egyptian who has been beating a Jewish slave. The next day when he witnesses two Jews fighting, he also tries to get involved (though perhaps verbally and without violence). Moshe has clearly taken a risk in acting on behalf of the Jewish slave, because he flees when he realizes that Pharaoh knows about his activism.
Why tell this of all stories about Moshe’s youth? He flees and is clearly not ready for the yoke of leadership for which God will pick him out. But these initial gut reactions- the attempt to protect the slave from the overseer and the desire to stop two Jews from fighting- are the necessary first steps to moral leadership. He could have remained safe in the palace but he takes a risk both moral and brotherly for his people.
The acts of brave women lead directly to Moshe’s moral urge. Without the many risks of the enablers in his life- the midwives, his mother, sister and adopted mother- he would not be afforded the chance to be a leader. Neither would he had the chance to live, nor would he have the perspective of a prince stepping out of the palace with the prerogative to take a risk on moral grounds to save his people. The redemption from Israel as a whole can be seen as starting with the many small acts of resistance, which together were able to produce a leader who could leave the Jews out of slavery.
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