Andy Warhol’s “The Shot Marilyns” (1964) shows four headshots of Marilyn Monroe with predictably different colorings in her background, hair color, lip or eyeshadow. Though each quadrant can be studied individually, the viewer is meant to see all four together. Though Warhol’s intention was to make a cultural critique about how Americans consume media and celebrities, this painting is a useful tool when thinking about how we can learn Tanach (Bible).
When we learn Tanach, we first learn each narrative, each picture frame, individually. Some scholars, like Robert Alter and Judy Klitsner, have popularized a literary method of Tanach study that encourages the reader to then consider how this narrative can be in conversation with parallel stories, namely, stories which share a similar narrative arc, language, or themes. The comparison motivates a new, creative read: namely, how the two narratives are in conversation with each other. Alter calls this the “Type Scene,” while Klitsner uses the terms “mining” and “undermining” to describe the processing of the two narratives.
One such example of this inter-biblical conversation is the miraculous birth narrative. The gist is basically this: God promises children; the couple tries to conceive; they cannot; the couple prays to each other or HaShem; the husband conceives a child through a maidservant, but the family dynamics become chaotic; eventually, after this long and arduous journey, HaShem eventually gifts the couple a child. It’s a miracle. Each has its own unique framing in the Warhol painting, but it is essentially the same story. Examples include the matriarchs and patriarchs in Genesis and Hannah and Elkanah in Samuel. We could list many more.
However, Moses’ birth story breaks this paradigm. The Children of Israel have no trouble at all conceiving. Actually, the population is exploding! “ובני ישראל פרו וישרצו במאד מאד ותמלא הארץ אותם” – And the Children of Israel increased and multiplied exceedingly, and they filled the land (Exodus 1:7). The trouble is that Pharaoh is irrationally scared. He is worried that the Israelites will ally with another nation to threaten Egypt’s safety (Exodus 1:10). Pharaoh eventually “solves” this problem by legalizing and forcing infanticide — throwing the Jewish baby boys into the Nile.
The sages want Moses to remain paradigmatic with the other miraculous birth narratives. If in the other birth stories the miracle is that the couple can conceive at all, so see how the midrash in Sotah 12a shoehorns Moses into this construct:
תנא: עמרם גדול הדור היה, כיון שאמר פרעה הרשע כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו, אמר לשוא אנו עמלין! עמד וגירש את אשתו, עמדו כולן וגירשו את נשותיהן, אמרה לו בתו: אבא קשה גזירתך יותר משל פרעה…וכו’
It was taught by the Tannaim: Amram was a leader of the generation. When the evil Pharaoh decreed that ‘all the baby boys should be thrown into the Nile’ (Exodus 1:22) Amram cried, ‘We’re suffering for nothing!’ He got up and divorced his wife and others followed suit. His daughter Miriam said, ‘Father, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s etc.’
The midrash here suggests that Amram and Yocheved separated when Pharaoh made his decree for infanticide. If separated, it would be impossible to bear a child, no? Thus the challenge for Amram and Yocheved to conceive was emotional, not physical.
There’s a part of me that wants to empathize with Amram’s dejection and hopelessness in this midrash. If children symbolize legacy and a hopeful future, who would want to bring a child into the world while Hitler is destroying it? But, then a miracle happens — Miriam, a feisty 6-year-old girl convinces her parents to reunite. Hence, this midrash is constructing a miraculous circumstance around Moses’ conception — just like the matriarchs and patriarch.
While most infertility stories center on the couple’s dysfunction or reliance on HaShem, with Amram and Yocheved, that is not the case. Now reunited, bearing the child is the easy part. Instead, the p’shat narrative (the plain sense of the text) will focus on this: how can we keep the baby alive?
When Yocheved can no longer hide Moses, she puts him in a basket and places it in the reeds (clearly similar to how God saves Noah from the flood in an ark). For years, I wondered, “What in the world is she thinking?!” I thought it was a cruel irony that she put the basket above the very waters where all the other dead babies were buried. Moses’ life hung, quite literally, in the balance. Just above him — life, and just beneath him — a mass grave. The thing separating the two — a current of water. Why put Moses’ basket there of all places?!
Recently, when I was in Israel, I was rafting down the Jordan and the reeds along the riverbank were very tall. It then occurred to me that the reeds could both secure and camouflage the basket! And loud crickets could muffle the sound of a baby’s cry! So if Yocheved was trying to hide Moses, her plan wasn’t so bad after all.
But the plan falls apart. Pharaoh’s daughter goes down to bathe and she spots the basket! And she asks her maidservant to bring it over! And she sees an Israelite baby boy crying!
What should she do now? The law says she should grab the infant and drown him. But on the other hand, this innocent child did nothing wrong — other than being born an Israelite. I feel my heart racing. What will she choose?
She has compassion for him — “ותחמול עליו” (Exodus 2:6). She keeps him alive and eventually adopts him as her own child (R. Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, explains that the name “Moses” literally means “son” in Egyptian). But why? If there’s anyone in the world who should have drowned the baby, it would be Pharaoh’s daughter! This midrash in Sotah 12a asks the question quite well:
ותרא את התיבה בתוך הסוף”, כיוון דחזו דקא בעי לאצולי למשה, אמרו לה: גבירתנו מנהגו של עולם מלך בשר ודם גוזר גזירה אם כל העולם כולו אין מקיימין אותה, בניו ובני ביתו מקיימין אותה, ואת עוברת על גזירת אביך
‘And she saw the ark in the reeds’ when her servants saw that the daughter of Pharaoh wanted to save Moses, they asked her, ‘Our Mistress, it is the practice of the world that a king of flesh and blood makes a rule and everyone follows it and certainly the king’s children follow it. And you transgress your father’s rule?!’
The midrash imagines a conversation between the daughter of Pharaoh and her maidservants where they inquire why she chooses to disobey her father and keep the baby alive. Rabbi Assaf Bednarsh notes, Midrash can be עומק פשוטו של מקרא, the heart of the plain reading of the text. The Torah left a lacuna and this midrash constructs a possible conversation to fill it, thus raising an excellent question to the reader. Really, this is a serious p’shat problem! Why is the daughter of Pharaoh part of the miracle to keep the baby alive? Sure, I would expect Moses’ mother and sister to risk their lives to save him; that’s no surprise. But what could compel a powerful Egyptian woman, part of the royal family living in Pharaoh’s palace to save this boy?
There are a number of midrashim which suggest all sorts of miraculous things which compelled Pharaoh’s daughter to save Moses — ranging from an intervention of Gabriel the angel to Moses healing her tzara’at, a spiritual skin affliction resembling leprosy, to Moses exuding the Divine Presence (see Exodus Rabbah 1:23 and 1:24). These midrashim indicate that Pharaoh’s daughter would have otherwise drowned this baby, but thanks to a miracle, she abruptly changed her mind to save him instead.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests a gorgeous p’shat alternative. Though the lives of Yocheved and the daughter of Pharaoh’s lives could not have been further apart (Israelite/Egyptian, slave/free, powerless/powerful, etc.), they do share this in common: they are women who feel an impulse to have compassion for the child, even at great risk and danger for their own lives. This is why, R. Hirsch suggests, the words “רחם — womb” and “רחמים – compassion” share the same three-letter root — because bearing and caring for children induces our ability to be compassionate.
The womb is the only organ, aside from perhaps breasts, whose purpose is to nurture and enable life. Thus, explains R. Hirsch, the etymological connection between רחם (rechem, meaning womb) and רחמים (rachamim, meaning mercy) hints to a profound symbolic connection. Phrased differently, Pharaoh’s daughter saved Moses because she allowed her human impulse for compassion to dictate her choices; she didn’t let her father’s tyrannical rules ossify her heart.
This compassion then substantiates the sages’ claim in Sotah 11b “בזכות נשים צדקניות נגאלו ישראל ממצרים — it is in the merit of righteous women that Israel was redeemed from Egypt.”
The above is based on the teachings of Dr. Yael Zeigler.