Shemot: Daughter of God

The Missing Name

Parashat Shemot begins with the story of Moses, who goes on to become the preeminent Jewish leader, the greatest of the prophets, and the main figure in the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land. But the Torah omits an essential biographical detail: nowhere does it mention the name given to Moses by his parents at birth. We know Moses only by the name given to him by the daughter of the Jewish people’s greatest enemy: “And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said, ‘Because I drew him out of the water’” (Ex. 2:10). The Midrash notes the omission: “By your life, of all the names you have been called, I shall call you by just the name which Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh, did” (Leviticus Rabba 1:3).

The key may lie in the words “and he became her son.” The Midrash (Lekaĥ Tov) states, “When one raises the child of another, it is as if one had birthed the child.” Pharaoh’s daughter not only raises Moses; in drawing him out of the Nile and bringing him into her home, she rescues him from certain death. That rescue is tantamount to a rebirth, in which case the waters of the Nile symbolize a womb of sorts. But I think there is another, more fundamental reason for the fact that Moses is known only by that name. The name is derived from the most formative event of his life, and perhaps symbolizes the essence of his story. He lives only thanks to the extraordinary action of Pharaoh’s daughter. She, upon being moved to compassion by a human story, is not content with watching from the sidelines and empathizing; she intervenes to prevent injustice.

The Torah omits not only Moses’ original name, but also the names of his parents, Amram and Jocheved, who are referred to merely as “a man of the house of Levi” and “a daughter of Levi” (2:1), and that of Pharaoh’s daughter. All are described archetypically. Thus, the Torah throws into stark relief the meeting between a “daughter of Pharaoh” and “one of the Hebrews’ children” (2:5–6), highlighting her courageous choice to intervene and save the life of a boy whom her father had condemned to die.

Unable to Stand By

It is only at the age of eighty that Moses encounters God in the burning bush. Until then, the Torah chooses to relate only his interpersonal interactions. The three stories related in the parasha depict him as a man who is unable to stand by when he witnesses an injustice:

And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. And he went out the second day, and, behold, two men of the Hebrews were striving together; and he said to him that did the wrong: “Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?”… Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well. (2:11–13, 15)

Moses, like Pharaoh’s daughter, sees and does not stand by. The Torah twice uses the word “saw,” which, the Netziv explains, in this context connotes a penetrating gaze: “He looked much upon the form of their burdens, whose purpose was not the king’s labor but rather their own affliction” (Haamek Davar, ibid.). Moses contemplates the depths of reality, sees the moral injustice, and is driven to take action for which he pays a heavy price – ultimately relinquishing a prince’s life of comfort for harsh exile in the desert, a death sentence hanging over his head.

But Moses does not step in only when an Egyptian is abusing his own kin; on the following day he is compelled to intervene at the sight of a brawl involving two Hebrews, his brothers. When an outsider harms a member of our group, it is natural for us to experience that harm as personal, but it is harder for us to take sides and intervene in internal disputes, and the price we pay is more complicated. Nevertheless, Moses again cannot stand idly by. It is noteworthy that this story, like that of Moses’ rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, employs archetypal terms: an Egyptian smites a Hebrew; two Hebrews strive together.

In the third story, Moses arrives at a new place where no one knows him, and immediately clashes with the locals:

Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. And the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock. (2:16–17)

As in the Darwinian world, where only the fittest survive, the stronger shepherds overpower Yitro’s daughters. But Moses cannot abide that, and he helps the weaker women even though he does not know them. Here is a third level of intervention: Moses is compelled to step in even in the face of a dispute between two “others,” despite having no allegiance to either side.

Yet, the courage required of Pharaoh’s daughter in rescuing Moses is even greater. Not only does she intervene on behalf of an other; she has to take the side of an ostensible enemy, to act against the interests of her own people. Moses, in his first speech to the Israelites on the plains of Moab, makes a similar demand of his people, opening with the moral imperative of serving justice, whether in the case of one’s brother, or one’s other: “And I charged your judges at that time, saying, ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. Ye shall not respect persons in judgment’” (Deut. 1:16–17).

Boundless Compassion

Moses’ life story serves to illustrate the ripening of compassion, epitomizing a natural love refined and extended to ever-widening circles. In her song “You Are a Miracle,” Chava Alberstein says, “To love one’s country is natural/Why should love end at the border?” Indeed, love is a natural emotion, but its scope must be expanded.

There is also love that begins at the border. Sadly, in many cases love for the distant other is a function of the relative ease with which we love those we do not strive with. It is hard to love someone we are forced to care for and get along with.

On Tisha B’Av of 2005, on the eve of the disengagement from Gaza, I participated in a meeting organized by the New Israel Fund that brought together various segments of Israeli society under the slogan “For These Things I Weep.” The speakers all related the things that saddened them, and each, in turn, was asked to introduce the next speaker (rabbis introduced Palestinians, leftists introduced settlers, etc). Last to speak was the journalist and TV personality Jacky Levy, who pointed out two things about the speakers who preceded him: one was that the bearded rabbis had used the feminine form of “I weep,” as does the Bible, and the other was that the two speakers who had bemoaned a lack of humanity in Israeli society had also neglected to introduce the speakers who came next.

We all have our challenges in life. There are those of us who must work on their approach to the distant other, and those whose challenge is to open up to those closest to them.

From the Human to the Divine and Back Again

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, “Moses, Moses.” And he said, “Here am I.” (Ex. 3:2–4)

Moses comes face to face with the bush and sees God. Rabbi Kushner[1] explains that the burning bush is a test of Moses’ capacity to take in reality in all its fullness, in all its detail. Only someone who can observe the bush over time can notice that it is not consumed.

The capacity to observe reality and see the other is emblematic of Moses. Only he, who is capable of seeing the other, can see God as well. One who cannot see other people cannot see the divine Infinitude. It is a recurring theme throughout the Torah: humanity is the nexus of the unbreakable link between heaven and earth, and the path to God must pass through it.

The Torah, as we noted, does not name Pharaoh’s daughter. But the Midrash gives her name as Bityah, “daughter of God,” which is remarkable considering the fact that the Torah portrays her biological father, Pharaoh, as the epitome of evil: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Bityah, the daughter of Pharaoh, ‘Moses was not your son, but you called him your son. Neither are you My daughter, but I will call you My daughter’” (Leviticus Rabba 1:3). Birth is not fate. People have choice and the capacity to change, in the eyes of both God and people.

There is a circle of compassion that begins with Pharaoh’s daughter, who sees Moses’ suffering, expands to Moses, who sees his own brothers’ suffering, and finally extends to God, who sees the Israelites’ suffering and hastens to deliver them. Just as Bityah draws Moses from the Nile into a new life, the Holy One draws the children of Israel from the Sea of Reeds to a new land. The deeds of the daughters are a sign for their fathers.

[1] God Was in This Place, the first note on Parashat Vayetzeh.

About the Author
Yakov Nagen is a Rabbi at the Yeshiva of Otniel, located near Hebron. His book "Be, Become, Bless - Jewish Spirituality between East and West" was recently published by Maggid.
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