Saving Moses, Saving Ourselves


Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6:1

In this first full week of the new secular year, the first portion of Exodus offers us a clear and powerful message. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Gone is the memory of the Israelite who saved the nation from starvation; all that remains is fear of his descendants. Pharaoh’s response to what he sees as a demographic threat is swift and brutal: harsh labor, enslavement and a dictum to kill every male infant.

Parshat Shemot continues with the birth — and rescue — of Moses, who will become the leader of the Israelite people. A cohort of powerful women stand up to Pharaoh’s evil decree: the midwives who care for the Hebrews; Moses’ mother and sister, later named as Yoheved and Miriam; and Pharaoh’s daughter, named Batya — “God’s daughter.”

The text does not record much of Moses’ early years, only that Miriam, who has been watching over her brother, approaches Batya and offers “a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you.” Batya gladly accepts. “So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son.” The Talmud teaches that one who saves a single life saves a world; so it is with these courageous women.

Pharaoh feared that Israelite boys would undermine his power. More often, the murder of newborns is a result of poverty, and fears of being unable to feed and nurture dependent children who may never contribute to a family’s well-being. In our own time, newborn daughters are more likely than sons to be murdered at birth. And in too many cultures, girls who survive birth continue to be at risk throughout their lives, simply because they are female.

The December 2014 U.N. Global Status Report on Violence Prevention notes that in the 133 countries comprising 88 percent of the world population, 1 in 5 girls is sexually abused, and 1 in 3 women suffers physical violence in the course of her lifetime.

These statistics are reflected in the recent abductions of hundred of schoolgirls in Nigeria, the recent car bombing of Yemenite schoolgirls, and the girls who end up in our criminal justice system because they have been neglected or discarded by their parents. A growing number of jurisdictions have established Girls’ Courts to address the urgent needs of this at-risk population that, unlike Moses, has no compassionate rescuer, no one to intervene.

When Moses and Aaron stand before Pharaoh to plead for the Israelites’ freedom, Moses is empowered by his encounter with God, who has sent him on this mission. He may also remember the words and songs he learned from his mother, Yoheved; his sister, Miriam; and from his surrogate mother, Batya. Moses demands freedom for his people because he was schooled by women who risked their lives for the freedom to love in a world of hate, the freedom to create life in a world of death, the freedom to nurture hope in a world of despair.

In this new secular year, may we, in the name of the women of Shemot, following Moses Rabbenu, our rabbi and teacher, raise our voices for freedom — from gender-based infanticide and from gender discrimination that robs our world of the talent, the gifts, and the contributions of many precious souls. This is the message of Parshat Shemot: One who saves a single life saves a world.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as scholar-in-residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation.


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