Parshat Shemot: The Circle of Compassion

The Missing Name

Parshat Shmot opens with the story of Moshe Rabbeinu, who grows up to be 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. But in telling the story, the Torah omits one of the most basic biographic details – nowhere does it say the name that Moshe receives from his parents at birth. We know Moshe only by the name he receives from the daughter of Israel’s tormentor: “And the child grew and they brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he was a son to her, and she called him Moshe for from the water I drew him” (Shmot 2:10).

This omission did not go unnoticed in the eyes of the Midrash:

Hashem said to Moshe: ‘By your life, of all the names you are called, I will call you only be the name you were given by Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter’ ” (Vayikra Raba Parsha 1:3).

Why does God choose this name in particular? 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 there is another even more essential reason that Moshe is known by the name that Pharaoh’s daughter gave him. 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 the his plight and moved to mercy, but she doesn’t simply stand aside and feel empathic, she takes action in the face of injustice.

Not only does the Torah omit Moshe’s original name, it also declines to tell us the names of his parents, Amram and Yocheved, who are simply referred to as “a man of the house of Levi” and “a daughter of Levi” (Shmot 2:1), and of course, no name is given for Pharaoh’s daughter herself. The names given are archetypal, describing not individuals but communal affinities. By stressing that the interaction is between “the daughter of Pharaoh” and “a Hebrew child” (Shmot 2:5-6), the Torah highlights the former’s bravery in interceding to save the life of a baby condemned to death by her own father.

Unable to Stand By

When he is eighty, G-d appears to Moshe in the burning bush. But until then, the Torah opts to tell us only of his human side. The three stories about him which appear in our Parsha show Moshe to be a person unwilling to stand idly by when injustice is perpetrated before his eyes.

And it was in those days, and Moshe grew up, and he went out to his brethren and he saw their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian man hitting one of his Hebrew brothers. And he looked this way and that way and saw that there was no one, and he slew the Egyptian and buried him in the sand… And Pharaoh heard of it, and sought to kill Moshe. And Moshe fled from before Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well.” (Shmot 2:11-12, 15)

Where Do I Go What Do I DoMoshe, like his adopted mother, is unable to ignore what he sees. The Torah twice employs the verb “saw,” which the Netziv interprets to mean deep contemplation: “He looked long at the nature of their toil, designed not to accomplish the king’s work, but only for the sake of their affliction” (Ha’amek Davar, ibid). Moshe studies the situation at hand, understands the deep moral injustice, and as a result decides to take an action for which he pays a heavy price – he is forced to abandon his comfortable life in the royal palace and flee to a difficult exile in the desert with a death warrant on his head. But he doesn’t stop there.

And he went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrews were quarreling. And he said to the wicked one, “why do you beat your fellow?” (Shmot 2:13)

Again Moshe does not remain silent, but here the situation is more complex. Rather than an enemy beating one of his brethren, the two people fighting are both brothers, members of his own people. When there is an external attack on a member of our tribe, it is natural that we take it personally to a certain degree, but when the strife is internal it is more difficult to take a side. Despite that, Moshe is unable to stand silently by. Note that also in these two stories the names given are archetypical, general: an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, two Hebrews fighting.

In the third story, Moshe arrives as a stranger in a new land and immediately gets tangled up with the locals.

“…The priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their fathers flock. And the shepherds came and drove them away, and Moshe arose and helped them and he watered their flock.” (Shmot 2:16-17)

As in the Darwinist world where only the strongest survive, the powerful shepherds drive away Yitro’s weaker daughters. Moshe gets up to help the powerless women, despite not knowing them. This is a third degree of involvement – a struggle where Moshe has no connection to either side. Two strangers, “others,” have a confrontation, and here too Moshe feels compelled to stand up and get involved.

But the strength demonstrated by Pharaoh’s daughter in saving Moshe was greater still. She not only interceded on behalf of the “other,” she crossed to the other side in order to do so, acting against her own nation and her own father’s decree. Later, Moshe calls on the people of Israel to uphold this same moral imperative. In his first address to the nation after crossing the Jordan, he opens with a call to do justice, whether with one’s close relation or a distant stranger, and to uphold the right, even when it is found with the ‘other’:

And I will command your judges at that time saying, you will hear [cases] between brothers, and you will judge righteously between a man and his fellow and the foreigner who is with him. You shall not acknowledge people in judgment…” (Devarim 1:16-17).

From Humanity to God and Back

Pharaoh’s daughter, as we said, does not receive a name in the Torah, but the Midrash gives her the name “Batyah,” the daughter of G-d. By the merit of her actions, she goes from being the daughter of the man who represents evil to being the daughter of Hashem.

The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Batyah, the daughter of Pharaoh, ‘Moshe was not your son and you called him your son, so too you are not my daughter, and I call you my daughter’” (Vayikra Raba Parsha 1:3).

Our station of birth does not dictate our fate. Man has the option and the ability to change for the better before G-d and before mankind.

In our Parsha we can observe a circle of compassion. It begins with Pharaoh’s daughter, who sees Moshe’s suffering, continues in Moshe, who sees the suffering of his brothers, and ends with the salvation of G-d, who sees the suffering of his nation and hastens to deliver them. Like Pharaoh’s daughter who takes Moshe from the waters of the river and gives him a new life, God brings the People of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea to a new land.

This article was translated from the Hebrew by Netzach Sapir.

Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen
Rav Dr. Yakov Nagen (Genack) is Rosh Kollel at the Hesder Yeshiva of Otniel and holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also published several books on Jewish philosophy, and numerous articles on the Talmud, the philosophy of Halacha, and Jewish spirituality. Rav Dr. Nagen is a member of Beit Hillel.
 

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2 Responses to Parshat Shemot: The Circle of Compassion

  1. Yitzchak Schwarz January 9, 2015 at 12:07 AM #

    The article contains an error: Moshe died before the crossing of the Jordan. You probably meant Yam Suf (sea of reeds), commonly interpreted as the Red Sea.

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  1. Shemot: The Missing Name | Parasha Poems - January 1, 2016

    […] 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 […]

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