Mordechai Silverstein

The Long Arm of Mercy

It is not an unusual phenomenon in ancient literature for heroic figures to be born and raised in a dramatic fashion. It is much rarer for secondary characters to be portrayed as having especially laudable character traits. The story of Moshe’s birth, the need for him to be kept hidden from the authorities, eventually to be placed in a wicker ark and set afloat in the reeds by the banks of the Nile, and hopefully to be saved from a terrible fate are well known. His savior was to be Pharaoh’s daughter who in her curiosity noticed the basket:

And Pharoah’s daughter came down to bathe in the Nile, her maidens walking along the Nile. And she saw the ark amidst the reeds and sent her slave girl (amatah) and took it. And she opened it and saw the child, and look, it was a lad weeping. And she pitied him and said: ‘This is one of the children of the Hebrews’. (Exodus 2:5-6)


So far, the story seems rather straightforward with Pharaoh’s daughter’s empathy only being revealed when she actually sees baby Moshe. However, the word “amatah”, composed from the root letters – alef mem hey, can mean either “slave woman” or “hand (forearm)” and while it is clear that the plain or pshat meaning of the text refers to the former, the very idea that this word could mean either, inspired an interesting rabbinic debate over how this verse might play out and how this episode should be understood:

And sent her slave girl (amatah) and took it — Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemiah [differ in their interpretation of the word ‘amatah’]: one said that the word refers to ‘her hand’ and the other said that it means ‘her slave girl’. The one who said that it means ‘her hand’ did so because it is written amatah; but he who said that it means ‘her handmaid’ did so because the text has not used the word ‘yadah [her hand]’… According to him who said that it means ‘her hand’, the text should have been yadah [using the more typical word for hand]! — [Scripture used the word “amatah”] to teach us that [her arm] became lengthened… (adapted from Sotah 12b)

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nehemiah, students of Rabbi Akiva, were frequent sparring partners. One of them chose the conventional reading and the other a more colorful one. (We are not privy to knowing who said what.) In this rather amusing reading of the verse, Pharaoh’s daughter’s hand reaches out to grab the ark in a way characteristic of a superhero with her hand extending outward a great distance. Aside from the extraordinary nature of this act, this action would also have been totally uncharacteristic of a royal personage.

So then, what is the proposed message of this rather extravagant reading? I would suggest that the darshan (interpreter) wanted to emphasize the super-human power of “hesed – lovingkindness. The will to do what was right and good overwhelmed Pharaoh’s daughter and inspired her to act above and beyond normal expectations. It inspired her to become a laudable role model and to truly represented the “long arm of lovingkindness”.

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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