“These are the names…” (Shemot 1:1)
Among the rolls
of worthy names
hers remains untold:
the unknown daughter
of a mighty king,
who sees a child
of wretched slaves,
condemned to certain death.
She could, unheeded,
yet risks her father’s wrath
to swim against the tide
and save him.
That child himself,
can neither turn away,
nor overlook injustice
and he too
Shemot (both the parasha and the entire book) opens with a list of seventy names. In a commentary on Parashat Shemot, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5306, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson poses a question: “Sh’mot has it all – a wonderful story of God’s saving love, extensive mitzvot so Jews can reciprocate and concretize that love, and a form of worship where both God and Jews can celebrate their relationship together. Why, with all those great details, would Sefer Sh’mot start with a long list of names?” He adds that the book lists names that have already appeared throughout the previous book of Bereishit. So why, he wonders, does an “otherwise promising book” start with such a list? Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that in Midrash Shemot Rabbah we learn that listing the names “adds new praise for the 70 souls who are mentioned, indicating that all of them were righteous.” So here, he says, “listing names is a way of affirming the worth of each individual listed…”
Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Rashi who addresses the importance of the list of names, “even though they were recorded during their lifetimes by their names, the Torah returned and recorded them after their deaths to proclaim how beloved they were.”
However, in this very parasha, the names of some key characters are not given.
In a commentary on the parasha from 2015, http://eng.beithillel.org.il/parshat-shemot-circle-of-compassion/, Rabbi Yakov Nagen notes that while we hear the early life story of Moses, who will become “the most important of all Israel’s leaders, the greatest of all the prophets, and the primary personality in the saga of the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Land of Israel” we nowhere learn the name that Moses was given by his parents, only that bestowed upon him by the king’s daughter: “And the child grew and they brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he was a son to her, and she called him Moses for “from the water I drew him.” “(Shemot 2:10)
Rabbi Nagen observes that the Midrash addresses this: “God said to Moses, “By your life, of all the names you are called, I will call you only by the name you were given by Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter” ” (Vayikra Rabbah Parsha 1:3).
He asks why God chooses this name in particular, and answers, “According to the Midrash, one who raises another’s child is considered as if the child is theirs. Pharaoh’s daughter not only raised Moshe, she also saved him from certain death when she took him from the river and brought him to her palace. Moshe’s rescue was like a rebirth. The waters of the Nile from which he was drawn are the womb from which he was delivered.” But Rabbi Nagen adds that there is an even more compelling reason that this name she calls Moses becomes the only one by which he is known, “The name “Moshe” recalls the formative event of his life and maybe even anticipates his entire life story. Moshe only survives because of the unlikely action of Pharaoh’s daughter. She is overwhelmed by the humanity of his plight and moved to mercy, but she doesn’t simply stand aside and feel empathetic, she takes action in the face of injustice.”
Rabbi Nagen notes that Moses’ parents are not named here, only by the more general “man of the house of Levi” and “Levite woman”. And furthermore, tellingly, in addition to the Torah withholding Moses’s birth name, no name is given for Pharaoh’s daughter herself. Rabbi Nagen suggests that this emphasizes the archetypal nature of the interaction, “the daughter of Pharaoh” and “a Hebrew child” (Shemot 2:5-6), thus he notes “the Torah highlights the former’s bravery in interceding to save the life of a baby condemned to death by her own father.”
As we read on, we see that as Moses grows up, he seems to have absorbed his adoptive mother’s humanity, as he too is unable to stand by in the face of injustice, and he also chooses to turn his back on royal privilege and take a moral stand.
In an article entitled: Daughter of Pharaoh: Midrash and Aggadah, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/daughter-of-pharaoh-midrash-and-aggadah, Dr Tamar Kadari brings the Midrashic description of the daughter of Pharaoh, in which we learn that she “did not follow her father’s wicked ways, but rather converted and ceased worshiping idols.” Pharaoh’s daughter is viewed positively by the Rabbis, and included among such righteous women converts as Hagar, Asenath, Zipporah, Shiphrah, Puah, Rahab, Ruth and Jael wife of Heber the Kenite. Dr Kadari notes, “The midrash specifically praised the daughter of Pharaoh for her rescue of Moses, thereby aiding in the exodus of all the Israelites from Egypt. Moses was raised in her home, by a woman who believed in God. She radiated warmth and loved him as if he were her own son, and accordingly was richly rewarded: she married Caleb son of Jephunneh and joined the people of Israel. Some midrashim attest to her longevity and claim that she entered the Garden of Eden while still alive.”
The Midrash identifies the daughter of Pharaoh with “Bithiah,” who is mentioned in I Chron 4:18: Dr Kadari notes that “The Rabbis found the name bat-yah to be fitting for the daughter of Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, since she (unwittingly) realized the divine plan when she kept alive the rescuer of Israel. The midrash relates that the daughter of Pharaoh received her new name of Bithiah (bat-yah; literally, the daughter of God) from God as reward for her actions. God told her: “Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son; you are not My daughter, but I call you My daughter.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:3).
Dr Kadari relates midrashim whereby the Rabbis illustrate the effort which Pharaoh’s daughter had to invest in order to save Moses: she had to battle her internal voice which warned her against transgressing her father’s decree; she herself had to act (in an un-royal manner) to draw the baby from the river (as she said when she named him, “For I drew him out of the water.”
In a commentary on Shemot http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=10919, Rabbi Aaron Alexander summarises this episode of Pharaoh’s nameless daughter and the Hebrew baby, in which we read of “the compassion and vision of Pharaoh’s daughter, who while seeking a bath by the river happened upon what so many of us blind ourselves to daily: Humanity, a life desperate for attention, care, and love. But our rabbinic tradition teaches us she had the vision to see exactly what was there. She saw a basket, a baby (Moses), and she saw God. And this king’s daughter -who was want for nothing – showed deep compassion by saving his life and inserting herself into life’s narrative -precisely where it would be easier to decline a role.”
In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen relates that she once boarded a flight out of San Francisco and found herself seated in the aisle while the window seat was occupied by an elderly, elegant looking man, and the middle seat was vacant. After the stress of boarding, she immersed herself in a novel until lunch was served – a salad, a bagel, and a pint container of yogurt. Dr Remen commenced eating, engrossed in her book, until she heard her seatmate gasp in dismay. She glanced aside and saw that he had upset his container of yogurt onto the floor, spilling it onto his shoes, the rug and part of his overnight bag. She says, “He was looking out of the window. I was waited for him to take some action, but nothing happened. Looking down again, I saw that he was slowly drawing his right foot, the shoe covered with yogurt, until it was almost under the seat. I could now see his left foot clearly. His ankle was swollen and a metal brace emerged from his shoe. His left leg was paralyzed.” Dr Remen describes ringing the bell for the flight crew, to no effect. Later, when a stewardess came around with the drink cart, Dr Remen pointed to the floor and requested a wet towel. She continues, “Before I could say anything more, she went ballistic. “There are over four hundred and fifty two people on this plane,” she snapped. “I’m doing the best I can. You’ll just have to wait.” Her defensiveness baffled me. We looked at each other in silence. Then, I realized that it had simply not occurred to her that I was a participant. “If you bring a wet towel, I will be able to get that up,” I said quietly. She hesitated and I wondered if she had heard. Then she raised her eyebrows, turned on her heel, and brought a towel.” Once the cart had been moved on, Dr Remen looked again the elderly gentleman who was still staring, statue-like through the window, his right foot hidden under his seat. She told him that while she had once loved flying, she now found it difficult due to impaired vision. Her seatmate, still looking through the window, then divulged that he had suffered a stroke eight months previously, and had since lost sensation in both arms up to the elbows. She continues, “Yet he had flown half way across the country to spend some time in the home of his son. He was speaking almost in a whisper and I leaned toward him to hear. “Since my stroke, I’m incontinent,” he said. “I have to wear a diaper.” I marveled at the choreography of this chance seating arrangement. “I have an ileostomy,” I said. He turned to look at me and asked what that was and I explained that my large intestine had been surgically removed and I wear a plastic appliance attached to the side of my abdomen to collect my partly digested food. I added, “Even after thirty years, I’m concerned that it may leak, especially on a plane.” After a moment, we smiled at each other. Then he looked at the towel I was holding and I looked down at his feet. As we talked, he had brought his right foot out from under the seat. “May I?” I asked, motioning with the towel. Kneeling, I began to wipe his shoes. As I was doing this, he leaned forward and told me, “I used to play the violin …” ”
Dr Remen then describes the profuse thanks proffered by the crew, and even more surprisingly, she relates that as she left the plane, the pilot standing in the doorway also thanked her and pressed something into her hand, which she discovered was a pin in the shape of a pair of wings, often presented by airlines to children after a flight. Dr Remen concludes, “A flight crew deals with hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. Their surprise reaction to a simple act of kindness is chilling. Perhaps we are no longer a kind people. More and more we seem to have become numb to the suffering of others, and ashamed of our own suffering. Yet suffering is one of the universal conditions of being alive. We all suffer. We have become terribly vulnerable, not because we suffer, but because we have separated ourselves from each other. A patient once told me that he had tried to ignore his own suffering and the suffering of other people because he had wanted to be happy. Yet becoming numb to the suffering will not make us happy. The part in us that feels suffering is the same as the part in us that feels joy.”