‘A Series of Fortunate Events’ — Parashat Shemot 5777

A funny thing happened as I was looking over Parashat Shemot in search of a topic upon which to base this shiur. We all know the story of baby Moshe in a basket floating down the Nile. For those of you who don’t remember the story by heart, here is a slightly edited version: [Shemot 2:1-10] “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a sonHis sister stood from afar to know what would be done to him. Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe to the Nile and her maidens were walking along the Nile, she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh and she sent her maidservant and she took it… His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and call a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, so that she shall nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go!’ The girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will give [you] your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed him. The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became like her son. She named him Moshe, and she said, ‘For I pulled him (meshiti’hu) from the water.’”

To help the reader to take notice that something odd is going on, I have italicized the places where the names of the characters should appear and yet do not. Ask any child the name of Moshe’s parents and they will tell you “Amram and Yocheved”. What about his sister’s name? Easy, it’s Miriam. The Torah tells us so in black and white, in the sixth chapter of the book of Shemot, where it goes through Moshe’s lineage. What about the name of Pharaoh’s daughter? It was Bitya[1]. This is clearly written[2] in Chronicles I [4:18]. Why, then, are their names not mentioned in this story? Even stranger, the only name that is not redacted is “Moshe” and it is pretty certain that the Pharaoh’s daughter called him by some Egyptian name whose Hebrew translation is “Moshe”.

I was certain that others before me had noticed this naming — or lack-of-naming — problem. I showed it to R’ Gil, who was sitting behind me in shul. He looked at the chumash for a few minutes and then told me that not only was he stumped, apparently Rashi had no idea either. I continued to look and I found one answer in “The Particulars of Rapture,” by Avivah Zornberg. She suggested that Am Yisrael assimilated in Egypt by willingly choosing anonymity, hence the lack of names.

I would like to look in a different direction. This past Shabbat I was in Great Neck, NY, speaking in the Great Neck Synagogue. One of the talks I typically give has to do with the essence of a miracle. In this talk, two classes of miracles are analysed. The first class of miracles is called “Pesach miracles”. These are the kind of miracles that were seen on a daily basis in the days leading up to the Egyptian exodus: blood, frogs, splitting the sea, and other examples of “shock and awe”. The Midrash asserts that when the sea was split a person could actually see the Divine. He could point with his finger and say [Shemot 15:2] “This is my God!” The second class of miracles is called “Purim miracles”. These miracles consist of a series of coincidences. If even one of these coincidences does not transpire, the miracle will never unfold. R’ Thomas Furst, writing in “Torah Mysteries Illuminated”[3], enumerates thirteen coincidences that if even one of them would not have transpired, then Haman might Heaven-forbid have been successful in his attempt to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian Empire.

I posed the no-name problem to my gracious host, R’ Marc, and he proposed the most wonderful solution. He referred back to two locations, one in Parashat Bereishit and one in Parashat Noach, in which the Torah lists the generations between Adam and Noach, and then between Noach and Avraham. The verses involved are terse: “A begat B, and B begat C…” We called them “The Great Begatsby”[4]. Why does the Torah list all of these “begats”? This question is touched upon in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot: “There were ten generations from Adam to Noach to teach us the extent of Hashem’s tolerance; for all these generations angered Him, until He brought upon them the waters of the flood. There were ten generations from Noach to Avraham to teach us the extent of Hashem’s tolerance; for all these generations angered Him, until Avraham came and reaped the reward for them all.” R’ Marc answers this question in a way that considers the “begats” as more than just buffers separating Adam, Noach, and Avraham. According to R’ Marc, the “begats” form a link of coincidences that lead to a desired end. Had Ever not begat Peleg, or had Serug not begat Nachor, then Avraham would not have been born. The people who are “begat-ing” are critical components of the outcome: Avraham Avinu, the father of our nation.

The lack of names in Parashat Shemot can be addressed in a similar way. By stripping away the names of the actors and leaving only the actions, it becomes clear that Moshe became Moshe Rabbeinu as a result of a series of fortunate events.

  • Moshe’s parents are from the Tribe of Levi, a tribe noted for its passion[5].
  • Had Moshe’s sister had not stood watch, no-one would have seen Pharaoh’s daughter take Moshe and he would have been assumed dead, or at least missing-in-action.
  • Had Pharaoh’s daughter acted like her father’s daughter, she would have drowned baby Moshe on the spot.
  • Had Moshe’s sister not proposed that Moshe’s mother serve as a wet nurse, or had Pharaoh’s daughter emulated her father and refused to allow a dirty Jew to nurse her son, Moshe would have lost all connection with the Jewish people.

All of these coincidences lead to Moshe Rabbeinu, who not only had an extraordinary personality and spirituality, but he had the perfect background for a person who would one day lead Am Yisrael out of Egypt and give them the Torah.

This explanation can also help us to understand Moshe’s name. As we mentioned above, it is odd that Pharaoh’s daughter, an Egyptian woman, would give her son a Hebrew name. While the medieval commentators address this concern, it turns out that if we take a closer look at the verse, it is unclear who actually gave Moshe his name: “So the woman took the child and nursed him. The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became like her son. She named him Moshe”. Who is the “she” that named Moshe? Is it the woman who nursed the child or is it Pharaoh’s daughter? Could really be either. Indeed, the Midrash tells the story of how Yocheved named Moshe after the word “mashach”, or “to pull”. When hearing Yocheved call Moshe by his name, Pharaoh’s daughter said, “that’s a particularly apt name, as I pulled (masha) him from the water”.

There is a fine difference between the words “mashach” and “masha”. “Masha” means “to pull out”, out from an undesired state. “Mashach”, on the other hand, means “to pull towards”, towards a desired goal. Pharaoh’s daughter pulled Moshe from the Nile. Yocheved, on the other hand, pulled Moshe towards his identity as a Jew. And through the actions of Yocheved, of Miriam, of Amram, and of Pharaoh’s daughter, Hashem gently pulled Am Yisrael towards their redemption.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Often incorrectly pronounced “Batya”.

[2] OK, maybe not clearly written, but clearly alluded to.

[3] R’ Thomas was kind enough to give me his sefer as a gift this past Shabbat. Here is a link: http://www.urimpublications.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=UP&Product_Code=ToraMI

[4] F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote “The Great Gatsby”, lived in Great Neck, and the book takes place in a city that is a thinly disguised Great Neck.

[5] Levi and his brother Shimon killed the inhabitants of Shechem after they kidnapped and raped their sister, Dinah. Later, Levi would avenge Hashem’s honour at the golden calf. Eventually, Pinchas, from the Tribe of Levi, would kill Zimri, from the Tribe of Shimon, who was sleeping with a Moabite princess.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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