“Hail Mary[1]” Parashat Shemot 5778

Sometimes you learn something as a child and no matter how much time passes you just can’t get it out of your head. I remember being told the story of Baby Moshe Rabbeinu in his basket on the Nile River and how Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya, reached out her hand to grasp the basket but the basket was too far away and so her arm miraculously (and grotesquely) stretched so that she could reach it. As I got older, certain facts of which I was unaware slowly came into focus. For instance, the princess’s name was not Batya, but Bitya[2]. Further, Bitya didn’t simply “reach out” with her arm: according to the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [12b] she stretched it out a full 60 cubits (about 30 metres). Finally, the Talmud teaches that not everyone agrees that Bitya’s arm magically stretched out to pick up the baby — a more down-to-earth opinion holds that she sent one of her servants[3]. But that grotesque picture has always remained with me.

Later on, certain facets of the story of Moshe’s rescue began to bother me. First, while putting a baby on the Nile River was obviously an act of desperation, not unlike a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the game, it seemed doomed from the get-go. Rav Zalman Szorotzkin analyses the potential outcomes: The most probable outcome is that the baby dies in the basket, either by suffocation, by starvation, or by drowning. Assuming the baby does survive his ordeal on the Nile, who is going to pick him up? If a Jew finds him he will leave him in the cradle for the same reason that Moshe’s mother put him there in the first place, because of Pharaoh’s edict to kill all the Jewish male babies. If an Egyptian finds him, he will more than likely implement Pharaoh’s edict and drown the baby. Looking at all the possible outcomes, the baby’s chances of survival are essentially zero. An engineer would say that the odds “tend to zero from the left.” Another bothersome facet of the story is the reaction of Moshe’s sister, Miriam, after Bitya pulls Moshe out of the Nile. The Torah tells us [Shemot 2:7] “His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’” Excuse me? How does a commoner — a lowly Jew, no less — gain access to the princess? How does she have the gall to approach Egyptian royalty? And why doesn’t Bitya or one of her henchmen kill Miriam on the spot? Instead, Bitya plays along, telling her to go see what she can come up with. Miriam brings Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I suggest that Yocheved and Miriam, while admittedly acting out of desperation, were implementing a very well thought-out strategy. Going back to Rav Szorotzkin’s list of potential outcomes, the only way that Moshe can possibly survive his ordeal on the Nile is if he is found and taken in by Pharaoh’s daughter. She is the only person in Egypt who could defy her father’s edict without having to pay for her disobedience with her life. In order for this to happen, Yocheved and Miriam require an operational plan, steely courage, and a hefty amount of Divine assistance.

The first step of the plan requires placing Moshe’s basket so that it could be discovered only by the Princess. The best way to accomplish this is by placing the basket near a location on the Nile that has been identified as a location in which the Princess is known to bathe. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch suggests that Yocheved placed Moshe in the river south of the city, in a part of the river that was not polluted by refuse that the city-dwellers would throw into it[4]. Rav Hirsch asserts that Yocheved chose this particular spot because it would be a natural bathing area and the baby would be quickly found. I suggest that Yocheved chose this location because it was known that this was where the Princess would usually bathe: The spot was secluded, protected from the currents, and blessed with clean water.

The first part of the strategy quickly bears fruit and the Princess discovers Moshe’s basket. She picks it up, sees the baby, and says [Shemot 2:6] “This is a Jewish child”[5]. Her conclusion does not require intricate reasoning: Moshe’s basket must have been one of literally thousands of baskets floating on the Nile. What other choice did a Jewish mother have? Placing her baby on the Nile was better than handing him over to the Egyptian authorities who would murder him and then throw his body into the Nile. The only difference between Moshe’s basket and all the other baskets floating on the Nile was that Moshe’s basket was placed in a location where it could be discovered by the princess.

When the princess picks up the basket and inexplicably does not throw it back into the Nile, it becomes a defining moment. The Netziv of Volozhn teaches that as soon as Miriam sees the princess take the basket from the water, she recognizes that Hashem is actively intervening. This strengthens her resolve and with no fear for her personal safety she approaches the Princess with an offer to find her a Jewish wet-nurse.

It was not only Miriam who was aware that something supernatural was transpiring. It seems that the princess somehow felt that she, too, was being called upon to rise above herself. Perhaps she was so impressed by Miriam’s courage that she agreed to play along. Bitya must have known that this girl who came out of the reeds must have been the baby’s sister. No child would willingly risk her life to save the life of an unrelated child. Bitya must have also known that the “Hebrew woman” that Miriam would fetch was almost certainly the baby’s mother. Bitya tells Yocheved [Shemot 2:9] “Take this child and nurse him for me”. Rashi, noticing that the word “helichi” (take [this child]) can also mean “he lichi” – “he is yours”, comments that “[Bitya] was prophesying without realizing that she was prophesying”. I suggest that Bitya knew full well what she was saying: We both know that the baby is yours but to save his life we both know that I must make him mine.[6]

Now that we understand the strategy behind Yocheved and Miriam’s Hail Mary, let’s return to the Midrash and Bitya’s grotesquely unnatural arm extension. I suggest that this Midrash, as most Midrashim, is not meant to be taken literally. Rather, the Midrash is teaching us a most valuable lesson. The Kotzker Rebbe summarizes it’s message succinctly[7]: “An unbridgeable distance lay between [Bitya] and the basket containing the weeping infant, making her action seem utterly pointless. But because she did the maximum of which she was capable, because her hand did not hang idle while a fellow human being needed her help, she achieved the impossible. All we need to do is stretch out our hand, move beyond ourselves and Hashem will take care of the rest.”

When looked at objectively, the creation of the State of Israel after two thousand years of exile defies all odds. Militarily, politically, and economically we have no right to be where we are today. And yet we thrive. We attribute this to our brightest minds who have carved out operational plans and to steely sabra courage. But we must never forget that without the hefty amount of Divine assistance that we have merited, we would very likely be someplace else altogether.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] In American football, a “Hail Mary” pass is a desperation play where the quarterback heaves the football as far as he can throw it and hopes that one of his receivers catches it in the end zone.

[2] See Chronicles I [4:18].

[3] The verse says [Shemot 2:5] “She sent her amah and she took it”. An “amah” can mean “maidservant” or “arm”. For pedantic Torah readers: Given that the word “amah” is spelled in the chumash with a kamatz under the aleph, and not with a patach, it must mean that the simple meaning of the verse is that Bitya sent her servant to fetch the baby. For the same reason there is no dagesh in the mem.

[4] Rav Hirsch actually suggests that she placed the basket north of the city, but as the Nile flows from South to North, she would have placed the basket south of the city.

[5] The Talmud in Tractate Sotah asserts that Bitya noticed that the baby was circumcised.

[6] R’ Avi Mandelbaum asked me if I felt that Bitya already knew Miriam and Yocheved before she found Moshe in the Nile. I think not. I believe that Bitya found herself in a position where she recognized that she was being called upon to rise above her upbringing and to change the course of history.

[7] As paraphrased on http://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1815469/jewish/Batya.htm. These strikingly beautiful words are quoted all over the internet.

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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