Mordechai Silverstein

In Search of the True Tzadik (Righteous One)

One should expect that Moshe’s rise to the role of prophet/king and savior of his people should be caste as extraordinary. He was born in unusual times, under unusual circumstances and if the story, as told in the Torah, is insufficiently unusual, the rabbinic sages most assuredly embellished its details. Still, the opening verse relating Moshe’s birth seems relatively banal: “And a man from the house of Levi went (vayelekh) and took (vayikakh) a Levite daughter.” (Exodus 2:1)

Nevertheless, this verse presented the sages with a problem. If Moshe’s father (Amram) and mother (Yoheved) already had children, Aharon and Miriam, then what is meant when the verse says: “and he went and took a Levite daughter”? Isn’t this verse talking about marriage? Weren’t they already married?

The rabbinic tradition sought to resolve this difficulty. An early attempt to answer this question is found in a midrash from the period of the Mishnah: “The sages say: The Holy One Blessed be He said to Moshe: Moshe, the merit of your father Amram stood ready for you when he did a great thing in Israel which accorded with God will. For when Egypt worsened the hard labor of the Israelites and drowned their children in the Nile, the Israelites said [to themselves]: what use is it for us to marry women and sire children and trouble ourselves when they sink our sons in the water and then go and bury them in buildings; and so, Amram arose and did a great thing in Israel. What did he do? He divorced his wife while she was three months pregnant; after three months he came and remarried her, as it says: ‘And a man from the house of Levi came and he took a Levite daughter’ and the ministering angels sang praise before her as if they were new brides and grooms, as it says: ‘a joyous mother of sons’ (Psalm 113:9). And Egypt counted nine months and she gave birth after six months. And why was all of it necessary to take a wife or not? In order to inform to the world of the merits of Amram the Tzadik. (adapted from Mekhilta de Rashbi 6)

This story “fills in the details” of how it was that Amram came to “marry” Yoheved. It was all part of a ruse to confuse the Egyptians so that they would be unable to harm the future savior of Israel. This act marked Amram as a “Tzadik – a righteous one” whose acts accorded with God’s will.

Still, I would contend that since the above story does not make this conclusion explicit, the following later and more familiar version of the story, was fashioned in response: “A Tanna (a sage from the period of the Mishnah) taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed ‘Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river’, he said: In vain do we labor. He arose and divorced his wife.  All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him, ‘Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s; because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas you have decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world, whereas you have decreed concerning this world and the World to Come. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in your case, since you are righteous, it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled, as it is said: You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established for you! (Job 22:28) He arose and took his wife back; and they, too, all arose and took their wives back. (Sotah 12a)

In this version of the story, Moshe’s sister is the story’s heroine. It is she who rescued the children of Israel from oblivion through her faith, wisdom and optimism. Amram, the leader of the Israelites, may have been righteous and may have thought he was doing the right thing by saving any future children from being born into the Egyptian morass, but through this pessimistic act, he denied the possibility of a better future. It took his daughter to set him straight, making her the true “Tzadeket – righteous one”.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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