Parshas Shemos: The Righteous Amongst Us
In this week’s parsha, Parshas Shemos, a new chapter in the long history of our people commences. While the book of Bereishis focused on the individual and personal lives of our founding fathers and mothers – their barrenness, struggles, journeys, children, triumphs, and losses – the book of Shemos begins the story of our national life.
Whereas Yaakov and his family descended to Egypt and were welcomed with open arms, for the next generation, things change. וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף וְכָל-אֶחָיו, וְכֹל הַדּוֹר הַהוּא – And Yosef died, and all his brothers (died), and that entire generation (died); and the Children of Israel were fruitful, teeming, increased, and became strong, very, very much, and the land became filled with them (Shemos 1:6-7).
And as the Jew spreads throughout the land, and becomes prosperous, numerous and successful… וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף – A new king arose who did not know Yosef (ibid, v.8). As Rashi famously teaches (ibid), some say he was a new Pharaoh, and some say that he was the same Pharaoh who changed his decrees (and benevolence) vis-a-vis the Jews.
Into this new tyrannical Egypt, Pharaoh begins to slander the Children of Israel to his nation (v.9-10); he introduces tax collectors and financial oppression upon the Israelites (v.11); and then he implements a program of harsh slave labor (v.11).
Not for naught does the narrative of Egypt sound like Nazi Germany R”L, whose Final Solution was well-modeled after the enslavement of Pharaonic Egypt. The Propaganda Machine run efficiently by Joseph Goebbels y’s; the financial oppression and seizing of all property belonging to the Jews; the back-breaking slave labor that embittered the lives of my grandparents z’l, and millions of other saintly Jews; and finally… the killing machine of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Belzec and the fields and cities of Europe.
Finally, Pharaoh resorts to genocide: And the king of Egypt said to the midwives of the Hebrews… when you see upon the birthing stool, if it is a boy, you shall kill him; and if it is a girl, she shall live (v.15-16).
The midwives, due to their fear of G-d, defy the order of infanticide, much to Pharaoh’s consternation. With no other option, Pharaoh orders that all males born in the land of Egypt shall be put to death (v.22).
Into this sinister time of national exile and servitude, a baby is born to a couple from the tribe of Levi. After hiding him for three months, his mother is no longer able to hide him. Desperate to save his life, she makes for him a little ark, and sends him floating down the Nile River (Shemos 2:1-3).
As destiny would have it, the Egyptian princess comes down to the river to bathe, and sees the child’s ark. Known to her – known to all of Egypt, of course! – is the decree of her father: Every male shall be thrown into the river and drowned!
וַתִּפְתַּח וַתִּרְאֵהוּ אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד, וְהִנֵּה-נַעַר בֹּכֶה; וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו–וַתֹּאמֶר, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה – And she opened (the basket/ark), and she saw the child, and behold a youth was crying; and she took pity on him and she said, “From the Hebrew children is this one” (Shemos 2:6).
In this story of oppression, fear, servitude and genocide – when Pharaoh, much like the Nazis after him, y’s, would slaughter Jewish babies and bathe in their blood (Rashi to Shemos 2:23) – the Egyptian princess, and her bravery and courage, is often overlooked.
At great risk to her own life, she makes a split second decision to save the child, and along with him, she saves Am Yisrael.
Perhaps, with the parallels between Pharaonic Egypt and Nazi Germany so startlingly clear in the Torah text, it is fair to say that Bas Pharaoh plays the beautiful role of the first Righteous Gentile. While they are – and were – few and far between, they do – and did – exist. Bas Pharaoh is the very embodiment of every moral, compassionate, sane, humane gentile who takes it upon him or herself to cast his/her lot with our people, knowing the risks this entails.
Despite the evil that exists in ancient Egypt, the righteous gentile is born.
We recently visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, CA, where we toured, amongst other museum exhibits, the Anne Frank exhibit (highly recommended). Hidden by righteous gentiles herself, Anne wrote: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
While we will spend the next four books of Torah journeying with Moshe, it behooves us to recall who named him. וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, מֹשֶׁה, וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ – and she (Bas Pharaoh) called his name Moshe, and she said: For from the water I drew him (Shemos 2:10).
For her bravery and kindness, the Sages teach (Shemos Rabba 1:26):
וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ משֶׁה, מִכָּאן אַתָּה לָמֵד שְׂכָרָן שֶׁל גּוֹמְלֵי חֲסָדִים, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁהַרְבֵּה שֵׁמוֹת הָיוּ לוֹ לְמשֶׁה, לֹא נִִקְבַּע לוֹ שֵׁם בְּכָל הַתּוֹרָה אֶלָּא כְּמוֹ שֶׁקְּרָאַתּוּ בַּתְיָה בַּת פַּרְעֹה, וְאַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לֹא קְרָאָהוּ בְּשֵׁם אַחֵר
And she called his name Moshe: From here you learn the reward bestowed upon those who commit acts of kindness for others. For even though Moshe had many names, the Torah does not establish for him any other name, other than what Batyah, the daughter of Pharaoh, called him. And even The Holy One, Blessed Be He, did not call him any other name.
As we learn of the Egyptian enslavement, the precursor to them all, let us not forget the dedication of the righteous gentiles who saved individuals, and saved worlds.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,
For your interest, be sure to check out these incredible and riveting true stories and the righteous gentiles behind them: