Who is the first to oppose Pharaoh’s rule?
It is not Moses. And it is not, you will forgive me from saying, God.
It is instead Shifrah and Puah. They are the Hebrew midwives who defy Pharaoh’s ruthless command to kill the Israelite’s first-born sons. Who is the next to oppose? It is Moses’ mother. She stands against Pharaoh. She fears for her son’s life and so places him in a wicker basket along the Nile, in the hopes that he might be spared the Egyptian’s murderous intent. By the way, we do not learn her name until this week. We learn Moses’ mother is called Yocheved. Only Shifrah and Puah are named.
Moses’ sister is also not named when she positions herself along the river to make sure her younger brother Moses is saved. Later we read her name is Miriam. She watches as Pharaoh’s daughter lifts her brother from the river. Pharaoh’s daughter remains nameless. She opposes her father’s command. She may in fact hold the key to our future deliverance. She goes to the river to bathe herself and there sees the baby Moses and takes pity on him. She states, “This must be a Hebrew child.” (Exodus 2) Imagine that. She loudly proclaims her defiance. She knows her father’s command and still publicly defies him. She names the Hebrew child, “Moses.”
We know the rest of Moses’ story. We never learn, however, the name of the woman who reached into the river and showed compassion for this Hebrew child. We never learn the name of Pharaoh’s daughter. She represents the many women who fight for what is right and what is true. She affirms life without seeking recognition.
The Rabbis wonder. Why would Pharaoh’s daughter go to the Nile to bathe herself? She could have sent her slaves. Perhaps as well there was risk to her life, given the growing disaffection in the kingdom. They suggest that she opposed her father’s policies from the start. She therefore went to the river to purify herself of her father’s sins. It was there, at that moment, that her heart was stirred to rescue Moses. According to legend, so meritorious was her defiance, and so great was her attachment to the Jewish people, that she accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt.
Our freedom and salvation begin with a nameless woman. She hears the cry of Moses. Her compassion mirrors God’s. This week God’s concern is awakened. God says to Moses, “I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord, I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage.” (Exodus 6)
God responds to our suffering. God’s concern, however, follows the acts of many human actors. God responds to our compassion. It’s almost as if Moses must bring our cries to God’s attention. God follows. We lead. Moses awakens God’s concern.
It is in our hands. It starts with our work.
And this begins not with the Torah’s avowed hero, Moses, but instead with Shifrah and Puah. It continues with Yocheved and then Miriam. It reaches a crescendo with Pharaoh’s unnamed daughter. It is of course true that Moses occupies the majority of the Torah. His name is uttered in every Torah portion that follows. The book is called the Five Books of Moses.
Too often this plain fact misleads. We think that concern begins with leaders. We imagine it begins with God. We think it begins with the names everyone knows. Instead we learn that compassion begins in the most unlikely of places. Concern, the fight for justice and righteousness, does not always begin with the famous, and with the known.
Moses is not the first to be called. Politicians do not begin the struggle.
History, it seems, too often forgets the names of its most significant actors.
Concern begins elsewhere. Compassion calls the unnamed. Unknown people lead the fight.
The struggle for righteousness lends us our name.
The women marched.
And we will march some more.
And then the women danced. (Exodus 15)
Soon we will dance as well.
(If only such dancing might appear in the week following as if we are merely reading a story, and progressing from one portion to another.)
The Torah reverberates with meaning. Still!