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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Amazing Nile Woman / Sotah 12a, b

The women mentioned in the opening chapters of Exodus are extraordinary by any measure. Even a cursory reading of the first two chapters of Exodus reveals that Shifra and Puah (the midwives), Yocheved (Moses’ mother), and Miriam (his sister) are endowed with wisdom, courage, insight, and fortitude in abundance. They collude to undermine Pharaoh, possessed of the quintessential “Us-versus-Them” mentality.

Our Rabbis concur in this assessment and enlarge the view. They tell us that when Pharaoh decreed the death of all Israelite baby boys, Amram (Moses’ father) divorced his wife to prevent births that would give way to deaths:
And there went a man of the house of Levi (Exodus 2:1). Where did he go? R.Yehudah b. Zevina said that he followed the advice of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, Every son that is born you shall cast into the river, he said: “In vain do we labor.” He arose and divorced his wife. All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives.

His daughter [Miriam] said to him, “Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh's because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas you have decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh decreed only concerning this world, whereas you have decreed concerning this world and the world-to-come [the babies drowned in the Nile will receive a portion in the world-to-come, but those who are never born will not]. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in your case, because you are righteous, it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled, as it is said, You shall also decree a thing, and it shall be established for you (Job 22:28). He arose and took his wife back [in marriage]; and they all arose and took their wives back. (12a)
The Rabbis attribute to adolescent Miriam the insight, courage, and wisdom her father lacks. She is responsible for the continuation of Jewish life in Egypt.

On the daughter of Pharaoh, the Rabbis lavish equal praise, or perhaps even higher praise. She alone in the royal house of Egypt – indeed, in the entire country – rejects her father’s idolatry and separates herself from his genocidal plans.
And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river (Exodus 2:5). R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: It teaches that she went down there to cleanse herself of her father's idols; and thus it says: When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion… (Isaiah 4:4). (12b)
They hint that her immersion in the river was a conversion, the river serving as her mikveh.

We are not surprised that the daughter of Pharaoh – whom the Rabbis will honor with the name Batya (“daughter of God”) – not only saves Moses, but insists upon doing it with her own hands, rather than through the agency of her servants. The discussion revolves around the possibly ways to parse amatah: it could be understood as “female servant” or “her amah” where an amah (cubit) connotes the arm, which is its basis of length.
And [Pharaoh’s daughter] sent her handmaid to fetch it (Exodus 2:5). R. Yehudah and R. Nechemiah [disagree in their interpretation of amatah]: one said that the word amatah means “her hand” and the other said that it means “her handmaid.”

The one who said that it means “her hand” said this because it is written amatah. The one who said that it means “her handmaid” said this because the text does not say yadah [literally: “her hand”].

But according to the one who said that it means “her handmaid,” it has just been stated that Gabriel came and beat them to the ground! [Just above this passage, we were told that the angel Gabriel beat the servants of Pharaoh’s daughter into the ground because they criticized the princess for opposing her father’s genocidal policy toward the male babies of the Israelites.] He [Gabriel] left her one [servant], because it is not appropriate for a king's daughter to be unattended.

But according to the one who said that it means “her hand,” the text should have been yadah (literally: “her hand”). It teaches us that [her arm] became lengthened; for a master has said: You find it so with the arm of Pharaoh's daughter and similarly with the teeth of the wicked, as it is written: You have broken [shibbarta] the teeth of the wicked (Psalm 3:8), and Resh Lakish said: Do not read shibbarta but rather shirbabta [you have lengthened, or stretched].
R. Yehudah and R. Nechemiah disagree about how to understand the term amatah. We don’t know which sage offers which viewpoint, but one clearly wants us to understand that the daughter of Pharaoh does not relegate the task of saving the child in the Nile to her servant. She boldly reaches into the water and scoops him out herself. What is more, God assists her effort by making her Elastigirl (you did see “The Incredibles,” right?) so that she could maintain her dignity by standing on the shore and reaching into the Nile to retrieve the basket containing Moses. The sage who offers this interpretation relies on a gezeirah shava, comparing Exodus 2:5 to Psalm 3:8 and also reformulating a term in the latter verse to read “lengthen” or “stretch” rather than “broke,” and applying this rereading to Pharaoh’s daughter’s situation at the shore of the Nile.

And if this isn’t high enough praise, the Rabbis continue, questioning the seemingly awkward Hebrew vatireihu et ha-yeled in Exodus 2:6:
She (Pharaoh’s daughter) opened it [the basket] and saw the child (Exodus 2:6). It should have said “and saw.” R. Yose b. R. Chanina said: She saw the Shechinah with him.
R. Yose reads vatireihu et ha-yeled as “she saw him with him.” The extra “him” who was present was the Shechinah, God’s indwelling presence in the world. So add this to the attributes of the daughter of Pharaoh: she is keenly attuned to the Shechinah.

These are beautiful passages about the power of courage and insight to bring redemption.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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