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Moses, and the rebirth of the Jewish people

A fresco in the Dura Europos Synagogue, Syria, c. 244 CE


Parshat Beshalach

JANUARY 25, 2018 – Why does the heart of the Passover Haggadah almost completely omit mention of Moses, limiting him to one cameo appearance? Moreover, that brief reference, a verse from our portion, Beshalach, dealing with the Parting of the Red Sea, seems to mention Moses in an incidental manner:

“And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant.” (Exodus 14:31).

Certainly the leader of the Exodus should have merited more prominent billing in the Haggadah. After all, he was God’s “point man” in implementing the Exodus from Egypt!

That said, if the lone mention of Moses is in a verse about the Parting of the Red Sea, we must uncover its significance. Birth is intimately associated with water: the fetus is surrounded by amniotic fluid, the mother’s “water breaks” as a sign of imminent birth, and a person who converts to Judaism – whom the Talmud analogizes to a newborn – must completely immerse him/herself in a mikveh of water.

If the birth of the Jewish people occurred at the time of God’s Covenant Between the Pieces with Abraham (Genesis 15), then our rebirth took place at the Parting of the Red Sea. Paralleling our national birth and rebirth is the birth and rebirth of Moses. Carefully studying his emergence onto the stage of history, we find parallels to the miracle and message of the Parting of the Red Sea inspiringly apparent.

The birth of Moses is described early in the Book of Exodus: born to parents from the Tribe of Levi, he is hidden for the first three months of his life. When keeping him hidden from Egyptian authorities is no longer sustainable, he is placed in an ark smeared with clay and pitch, with the ark set afloat “in the reeds” of the Nile River (Exodus 2:1-3).

The rebirth of Moses begins when Pharaoh’s daughter goes down to bathe in the Nile. As her maidens walk along the river, the princess sees Moses’ basket among the reeds. She sends her maidservant, takes the Hebrew baby, has compassion for him, and allows Miriam, who had been carefully following the events, to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for him (Exodus 5-9).

Pharaoh’s daughter does not give birth to Moses, but she does save his life, in the process endangering her own life by defying her father’s decree to cast all Hebrew baby boys into the Nile. History confirms that totalitarian despots never hesitate to execute their closest family members who dare rebel against them. Pharaoh’s daughter thus emerges as a courageous heroine!

This fortunate rebirth culminates with the giving of a name: “And the lad grew, and [the wet-nurse, Yocheved, his biological mother] took him to Pharaoh’s daughter; he became the son [of Pharaoh’s daughter], and she named him Moshe, saying, “It is because I drew him out from the water.” (Exodus 10).

It is not without cause that she has the right to call him her son. After all, having drawn him forth from the Nile River on pain of death, she has earned this right. Every biological mother puts her life on the line with every birth; and Pharaoh’s daughter endangered her life by going against her father’s decree and saving this Hebrew baby.

Left without a verbal connection between the Egyptian name “Moshe” and the Hebrew word, meshitihu, “I drew him out,” the Torah employs a double-entendre: Moshe the son (in Egyptian), reborn in the midst of reeds, will decisively draw forth (Moshe, in Hebrew) his people, the Israelites, at the Red Sea, facilitating their rebirth.

This is why Moses’ lone appearance in the Passover Haggadah occurs at the Parting of the Red Sea. Far from merely citing a verse that happens to include Moses’ name, the Haggadah is alluding to that most profound parallel of the leader and his people both experiencing rebirth, Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter (in the reeds of the Nile), and the Jewish People by God at the Red Sea.

And perhaps even more significant is what Moses and the Jewish People did with these additional opportunities of rebirth. From the shores of the Red Sea, they journeyed to Sinai and received the Torah, becoming messengers of truly revolutionary teachings to the world, such as the moral obligations of universal freedom and human dignity that are as important today as they have ever been.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, an Israeli settlement established in 1983 in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank.

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