This year, our reading of Sh'mot coincides with the first full week of the new secular year. Both this portion and this new year remind us of the teaching of Proverbs 31:25: valor, true strength, includes looking to the future with optimism and hope.
How can we apply that sense of calm to the challenging story that is presented by the dilemma in these first verses of Exodus? The Hebrew midwives, who may have been Hebrew women or Egyptian women serving the Hebrews, are commanded to subvert and deny their essential mission: instead of expertly and joyously welcoming new life, Pharaoh directs them to become murderers.
These righteous women defy the ruler's evil decree, and deliver Moses and other Israelite infants into life. Yoheved, Moses' mother, determined to save her son, devises a scheme that, with Miriam's help, puts him into the arms of Pharaoh's daughter. Yoheved thus insures her son's future, enabling him to lead the Israelites out of slavery.
The text implies questions that continue to be debated in our time. Who is the true mother of this infant? How should lineage and inheritance be determined? In Genesis, Sarai, desperate to have a child, encourages her husband Abram to sleep with her slave Hagar; "maybe I will have a son through her." Ishmael is born to Hagar and Abram, and then Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
The tension between these two mothers and these two sons of a single father continues to animate the text, for who is Abraham's heir? Each generation of our ancestral narrative continues this theme: Rebecca's sons, Jacob and Esau, compete for their inheritance, and Jacob's 10 sons, consumed with jealousy, consider murdering their youngest brother, Joseph, their father's favorite.
While Moses' parentage is clear, he is raised in Pharaoh's palace. Who is his "real" mother? What is his true lineage? Today, such conversations involve genetic testing and legal agreements that can create — or tear apart — families. We live in a time when families are created by a wide and amazing array of methods. And while many new and previously unimagined issues are now considered, eternal questions remain.
Who has the right and the privilege of raising a child? What responsibilities come with welcoming new life into the world? What is appropriate support and moral direction for a new and vulnerable soul? What role should parents and those who serve in parental positions play? What is the role of supportive communities? How and when does the state enter this conversation?
Moses was blessed by coming into the world in the center of a circle of women who insured his safe arrival and a secure childhood. Pharaoh's daughter educated Moses as a privileged Egyptian. For her role in preparing our leader, the later rabbis called her Batya, daughter of the Holy One. Shemot suggests that while parentage and lineage are important, equally vital are the individuals who welcome and nurture and guide our children, from their early years to their introduction into the greater community.
So as we consider the many ways that we moderns "make a family," let us consider our own responsibilities as members of Jewish communities that treasure every child, welcoming each as a possible Moses or Miriam, educating each of our precious children as leaders who have the courage and skill to defy injustice and guide others out of slavery.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: [email protected]