The revolutionary lawgiver of the Israeli nation

Publication Date24 December 2021
Publication titleIsrael National News (Israel)
As we explored in our last episode, each Hebrew tribe constituted a unique entity with its own tribal personality and special contribution to the future life of the nation. According to the Midrash, the Israelis in Egypt had a number of special merits that made them worthy of ultimate liberation from slavery. One of those was that they did not change their names. From a Hebrew perspective, a name is a carrier of a person's purpose and the meaning and essence of their life

People who are mindful of where they come from, where they are going and why they are here, generally tend to have an easier time realizing their purpose in life. Despite all the burdens of slavery, the Hebrews remembered that they were descendants of Avraham, Yitzḥak and Yaakov, and they remembered the land to which they were destined to return.

The Torah tells us in Sh'mot 1, verse 6, that Yosef and his brothers and their entire generation had died. And the next verse tells us that Israel had greatly increased in number and even spread out beyond Goshen to the entire country.

But verse 8 shows us that a new king arose who hadn't known Yosef and that this Pharaoh began to plot against the Hebrews, who he and apparently much of Egyptian society had found threatening. Not knowing Yosef shouldn't necessarily be taken here to mean that the new king literally wasn't aware of Yosef or his contributions to Egypt but rather that he didn't want to know Yosef and had no interest in recognizing the Hebrew community as playing a positive role in Egyptian society.

Sefer HaYashar elaborates on why this new Pharaoh and his court felt so threatened by Israel. Tzefo ben Eliphaz – a grandson of Esav – had led a great army against Egypt. And 150 Hebrew fighters were enlisted to defend the country from the attack. During the battle, the Egyptians were overwhelmed and retreated in such a way that left the children of Israel alone and exposed on the battlefield. The 150 Hebrew fighters called out for HaShem's help and were given victory over their enemies, killing roughly 4,000 of Tzefo's soldiers. Once triumphant, the Hebrews confronted the Egyptian soldiers who had betrayed them and left them to be attacked by Tzefo's army. And in the course of the altercation, Israel killed 200 Egyptians. The children of Israel constituted a strong population that was constantly growing more numerous.

This initially led to Pharaoh enslaving the children of Israel. And because a policy of forced labor didn't succeed in weakening the Hebrew population or containing its growth, Pharaoh ultimately opted for a policy of murdering all newborn Hebrew males.

This sets the scene for the birth of Moshe, who will ultimately become not only Israel's teacher and leader but also something even greater than a prophet that we don't even have a word for because in all of human history, Moshe has been the only one.

In Sh'mot chapter 2, verse 1, we see that a man from the house of Levi took a daughter of Levi. This Levi was Amram ben K'hat. We don't learn his name until the next parsha because at this point the Hebrews were so suppressed by the oppression we suffered under Egypt that it was as if our personal names had been erased. This might actually be one of the reasons this parsha is called Sh'mot, because names and even a lack of names, play a central role in what's being conveyed to us.

Although we aren't told Amram's name at this point, we are told his tribe. The oppression had nullified our personal identities but not our tribal identities and we were still very much aware of ourselves as children of Israel.

Our Sages teach in Midrash Tanḥuma that the tribe of Levi was never enslaved with the rest of Israel. Levi served as Israel's spiritual leadership and had been exempt from manual labor. But due to a deep identification with the Hebrew collective, the priestly tribe still suffered as a result of Israel's overall subjugation. And Pharaoh's decree of infanticide against male Hebrew babies applied to the tribe of Levi no less than to the other tribes.

Amram – a respected leader of the Levi tribe – was not taking his wife Yoḥeved for the first time in this verse. They already had two children. We learn in the Talmud, in Sotah 12a, that Amram had divorced his wife as a means of avoiding Pharaoh's decree, and that many Hebrews had followed his example. But then Amram's daughter Miriam convinced him to reconsider, arguing that Pharaoh's edict condemned male babies to death while Amram's response condemned also the females.

Amram saw the wisdom in his daughter's argument and remarried Yoḥeved, setting an example for the rest of Israel, who also then remarried their wives. This entire episode shows the extent to which Amram had been a recognized leader among Egypt's Hebrew population.

Verse 2 states that "The woman conceived and gave birth to a son. She saw that he was good and she hid him for three months."

Regarding the Torah's statement that she saw that he was good, Sotah 12a offers different explanations – one that the son was born already circumcised and another that upon his birth the entire house was filled with light. One of Moshe's most important qualities will be that he will strive to spread light and to personify an intolerance towards evil and injustice. Whenever Moshe will encounter evil during his life, he will feel an immediate drive to challenge and defeat it.

After hiding Moshe for three months, the next verses tell us that his mother put him into a wicker basket smeared with tar and clay and placed him among the reeds at the river bank where Pharaoh's daughter was known to bathe. Miriam was meanwhile stationed nearby to keep watch. Once Pharaoh's daughter took the basket and identified the baby as Hebrew, Miriam offered to arrange for a Hebrew woman to nurse the child.

What's clear from these verses is that this area of the riverbank was reserved for royalty yet no one seemed to object to Miriam's presence there. This, combined with the fact that Miriam addressed Pharaoh's daughter directly in verse 7, indicates that the entire episode might...

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