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C&C Family Edition: The Light at the Heart of Darkness (Shemot 5779)

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SHEMOT: THE LIGHT AT THE HEART OF DARKNESS

Covenant & Conversation: Family Edition is a new and exciting initiative from The Office of Rabbi Sacks for 5779.  Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting older children and teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha. Each element of the Family Edition is progressively more advanced; The Core Idea is appropriate for all ages and the final element, From The Thought of Rabbi Sacks, is the most advanced section. Each section includes Questions to Ponder, aimed at encouraging discussion between family members in a way most appropriate to them. We have also included a section called Around the Shabbat Table with a few further questions on the parsha to think about. The final section is an Educational Companion which includes suggested talking points in response to the questions found throughout the Family Edition.


Download the Family Edition for Shemot as a PDF

This Family Edition acts as an accompaniment to the main Covenant & Conversation essay for Shemot 5779 which you can read here.


With Shemot, the defining drama of the Jewish people begins. In exile, in Egypt, they multiply, until they are no longer a family but a nation. Pharaoh, fearing that they pose a threat to Egypt, enslaves them and orders their male children killed. Moses, an Israelite child adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, is chosen by God to confront Pharaoh and lead the people to freedom. Reluctantly, Moses agrees, but his initial intervention only makes things worse, and on this tense note the parasha ends.


Pharaoh’s daughter is one of the most unexpected heroes of the Hebrew Bible. Without her, Moses might not have lived. The whole story of the exodus would have been different. Yet she was not an Israelite. She had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by her courage. Yet she seems to have had no doubt, experienced no reservations, made no hesitation. If it was Pharaoh who hurt the children of Israel, it was another member of his own family who gave them hope: Pharaoh’s daughter.

This is how it happened. Pharaoh had decreed death for every male Israelite child. Yocheved, Amram’s wife, had a baby boy. For three months she was able to conceal his existence, but no longer. Fearing his certain death if she kept him, she set him afloat on the Nile in a basket, hoping against hope that someone might see him and take pity on him. This is what follows:

Pharaoh’s daughter went to bathe in the Nile, while her maids walked along the Nile’s edge. She saw the box in the reeds and sent her slave-girl to fetch it. Opening it, she saw the boy. The child began to cry, and she had pity on it. “This is one of the Hebrew boys,” she said (Exodus 2:6).

Note the sequence. First she sees that it is a child and has pity on it. A natural, human, compassionate reaction. Only then does it dawn on her who the child must be. Who else would abandon a child? She remembers her father’s decree against the Hebrews. Instantly the situation has changed. To save the baby would mean disobeying the royal command. That would be serious enough for an ordinary Egyptian; doubly so for a member of the royal family.

More than that, she is not alone when the event happens. Her maids are with her; her slave-girl is standing beside her. She must face the risk that one of them, perhaps after an argument, or even just to gossip, will tell someone. Rumours spread quickly in royal courts. Yet she does not shift her ground. She does not tell one of her servants to take the baby and hide it with a family far away. She does not flinch. She has the courage of her compassion.

QUESTIONS TO PONDER:

  1. Do you think it would it have been understandable for Pharaoh’s daughter to not save the baby?
  2. Why do you think she did it despite the risks?
  3. What does the word hero mean to you? Was Pharaoh’s daughter a hero? Who are your other heroes and why?

Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat, was sent, at the age of thirty-two, to be part of the Swedish diplomatic mission in Budapest in July 1944. By then the mass extermination of Hungarian Jews was under way. Over 400,000 of them had already been killed in Auschwitz.

With courage, imagination and a single-minded sense of purpose he resolved to do what he could to save at least some of those who remained. He printed and handed out Swedish protective passports. He created safe houses where Jews could take refuge. In some cases, he even rescued people who’d already boarded the transportation trains. And he managed to delay Adolf Eichmann’s (one of the main organisers of the Holocaust) planned massacre of Budapest ghetto, so that when the Russians reached the city two days later they found over 90,000 Jews still alive. One way or another he saved more than 100,000 lives.

We don’t know what happened to him. Suspected of being an American spy, he was taken to Russia, and there all traces of him disappear. He remains the hero without a grave. But as long as humanity remembers those days, his name will remain a symbol of courage in the face of seemingly invincible evil. He stood firm. He refused to be intimidated. He resisted, knowing that in dark times what we do makes a difference. The good we do lives after us, and it’s the greatest thing that does.

BBC ‘Thought for the Day’, 4th March 2004

QUESTIONS TO PONDER:

  1. What similarities are there between the story of Pharaoh’s daughter and Raoul Wallenberg?
  2. What do you think you would have done in Raoul Wallenberg’s situation or in Pharaoh’s daughter’s situation?

Immediately after discovering the crying baby, Miriam the baby’s sister reveals herself to Pharaoh’s daughter and presents her audacious plan: “Shall I go and call a Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” (Exodus 2:7) She proposes a plan brilliant in its simplicity. If the real mother is able to keep the child in her home to nurse him, we both minimise the danger. You will not have to explain to the court how this child has suddenly appeared. We will be spared the risk of bringing him up: we can say the child is not a Hebrew, and that the mother is not the mother but only a nurse. Miriam’s ingenuity is matched by Pharaoh’s daughter’s instant understanding and consent.

Then comes the final surprise: When the child matured, [his mother] brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter. She adopted him as her own son and named him Moses. “I bore him from the water,” she said. (Exodus 2:10) Pharaoh’s daughter did not simply have a moment’s compassion. She has not forgotten the child. Nor has the passage of time diminished her sense of responsibility. Not only does she remain committed to his welfare; she adopts the riskiest of strategies. She will adopt him and bring him up as her own son. This is courage of a high order.

Yet the single most surprising detail comes in the last sentence. In the Torah, it is parents who give a child its name, and in the case of a special individual, God Himself. It is God who gives the name Isaac to the first Jewish child; God’s angel who gives Jacob the name Israel; God who changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. We have already encountered one adoptive name – Tzafenat Pa’neah – the name by which Joseph was known in Egypt; yet Joseph remains Joseph. How surpassingly strange that the hero of the exodus, the greatest of all the prophets, should bear not the name Amram and Yocheved have undoubtedly used thus far, but the one given to him by his adoptive mother, an Egyptian princess.

A Midrash draws our attention to the fact: “This is the reward for those who do kindness. Although Moses had many names, the only one by which he is known in the whole Torah is the one given to him by the daughter of Pharaoh. Even the Holy One, blessed be He, did not call him by any other name.” (Shemot Raba 1:26) Indeed Moshe – Meses – is an Egyptian name, meaning “child,” as in Ramses (which means child of Ra; Ra was the greatest of the Egyptian gods).

Who then was Pharaoh’s daughter? Nowhere is she explicitly named. However, the First Book of Chronicles (4:18) mentions a daughter of Pharaoh, named Bitya, and it was she the sages identified as the woman who saved Moses. The name Bitya (sometimes rendered as Batya) means “the daughter of God.” From this, the sages drew one of their most striking lessons: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her: ‘Moses was not your son, yet you called him your son. You are not My daughter, but I shall call you My daughter.’” (Vayikra Raba 1:3) They added that she was one of the few people (tradition enumerates nine) who were so righteous that they entered paradise in their lifetime.

Instead of “Pharaoh’s daughter” read “Hitler’s daughter” or “Stalin’s daughter” and we see what is at stake. Tyranny cannot destroy humanity. Moral courage can sometimes be found in the heart of darkness. That the Torah itself tells the story the way it does has enormous implications. It means that when it comes to people, we must never generalise, never stereotype. The Egyptians were not all evil: even from Pharaoh himself a heroine was born. Nothing could signal more powerfully that the Torah is not an ethnocentric text; that we must recognise virtue wherever we find it, even among our enemies; and that the basic core of human values – humanity, compassion, courage – is truly universal. Holiness may not be; goodness is.

Outside Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, is an avenue dedicated to righteous gentiles. Pharaoh’s daughter is a supreme symbol of what they did and what they were. I, for one, am profoundly moved by that encounter on the banks of the Nile between an Egyptian princess and a young Israelite child, Moses’ sister Miriam. The contrast between them – in terms of age, culture, status and power – could not be greater. Yet their deep humanity bridges all the differences, all the distance. Two heroines. May they inspire us.


Judaism has a unique dual structure of ethics. On the one hand there is the covenant of Noah, which binds all humanity on the basis of seven fundamental commands. On the other is the Abrahamic and later Sinai covenant that binds Jews by a more detailed and demanding system of commands. Judaism is constituted by this basic tension between the universal and the particular. Its way of life is intensely particular, yet its God and ultimate gaze are universal, concerned with all humankind, indeed all creation. How are we to understand the significance of this duality?

Helpful in this context is the distinction suggested by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit between morality and ethics. Morality refers to the universal principals we use in dealings with humanity in general: our relationships with strangers. Ethics, by contrast, refers to our relationships with those with whom we share a special bond of shared memory and belonging: family, friends, fellow countrymen, or people with whom we share a faith. The two systems have a different tonality: ‘Morality is greatly concerned, for example, with respect and humiliation… Ethics, on the other hand, is greatly concerned with loyalty and betrayal…’

This is the best way of understanding the difference between tzedek and mishpat on the one hand, chessed and rachamim on the other. Tzedek and mishpat belong to morality. Chessed and rachamim belong to ethics. The former are about justice, the latter about loving attention, for which the simplest English term is care. Justice is and must be impersonal. ‘You shall not recognise persons in judgement’, says Deuteronomy (16: 19). The beauty of justice is that it belongs to a world of order constructed out of universal rules through which each of us stands equally before the law. Chessed, by contrast, is intrinsically personal. We cannot care for the sick, bring comfort to the distressed or welcome a visitor impersonally. If we do so, it merely shows that we have not understood what these activities are. Justice demands disengagement. Chessed is an act of engagement. Justice is best administered without emotion. Chessed exists only in virtue of emotion, empathy and sympathy, feeling-with and feeling-for. We act with kindness because we know what it feels like to be in need of kindness. We comfort the mourners because we know what it is to mourn. Chessed requires not detached rationality but emotional intelligence.

To Heal a Fractured World, p. 51

QUESTIONS TO PONDER:

  1. Did Pharaoh’s daughter and Raoul Wallenberg act in the way they did from a moral perspective or from a perspective of ethics?
  2. Which do you think would be more heroic in their stories?

  1. Is the decision Pharaoh’s daughter took a heroic act or the least we could expect of any human in such a situation?
  2. Was Miriam also a hero in this story?
  3. What is the message of the Midrash when it points out that Moses was only ever known by his Egyptian name Moshe?
  4. What message are the sages giving us when they identify Pharaoh’s daughter as “Batya”?
  5. What message from this week’s Covenant & Conversation made the biggest impact on you?

Do you want to win a Koren Aviv Weekday Siddur? This siddur has been designed to help young people explore their relationship to their God, and the values, history and religion of their people. Email CCFamilyEdition@rabbisacks.org with your name, age, city and your best question or observation about the parsha from the Covenant & Conversation Family Edition. Entrants must be 18 or younger. Each month we will select two of the best entries, and the individuals will each be sent a siddur inscribed by Rabbi Sacks! Thank you to Koren Publishers for kindly donating these wonderful siddurim.


THE CORE IDEA

  1. The motivation of the act is important for the individual and their moral and spiritual growth and journey. Unintentional acts produce bad outcomes all the time in life, and the knowledge that these acts were unintended helps those impacted by them to move on. However, when it comes to the way our acts impact others, the claim that this was an unintended outcome of the act may well not be enough. In these instances, the outcome is what is important, and this must be kept in mind when decisions are made (what are the risks and potential negative outcomes of any act/decision) and especially when it comes to addressing bad things that we have caused. Teshuvah only helps with the person that has brought the outcome about. Asking for forgiveness, and redressing injustices that have come about from our actions is the only way to make things better for them.
  2. This value in Judaism is often called gam zu letovah – also this is for the good – seeing the good outcomes from bad events in life. Sometimes it takes much time to be able to see how things turn out for the best.
  3. Joseph models understanding, patience, forgiveness, unconditional love, and possibly most importantly a positive outlook on life and an ability to analyse his past and find always find the good, despite considerable and obvious bad.

IT ONCE HAPPENED…

  1. Reish Lakish had immense strength and skills that allowed him to be a successful robber and gladiator. Once he took the decision to dedicate himself to a life of Torah study and practice, he used those same skills for the good. For example, he used his strength and passion for learning Torah, and he used the previous skills that made him a cunning and effective fighter for the good (saving his friends and their property).
  2. Every talent and skill, as well as resource, can be used for bad or for good. Encourage self-introspection to analyse what these could be in their life.

FROM THE THOUGHT OF RABBI SACKS

  1. Ancient time was cyclical. This mythical approach to time meant that ultimately nothing changed. Life was a continuous series of repeating cycles – for example, spring, summer, autumn, winter; or birth, growth, decline and death. This approach led to stagnation and cynicism. Things will never be better, they will always stay the same. Biblical Judaism introduced to the world the concept of historical destiny – that the world can be better tomorrow than it was today. That is the essence of Judaism’s message – we need to change the world for the better in order to redeem it. Teshuvah is an integral part of this, on an individual level. Without teshuvah we are doomed to live a life of condemnation and recurring evil due to our previous mistakes and sins. But if we have the chance to redeem our previous actions, then we can become better people, and there is always hope for a better future. Judaism has introduced hope and progress into the world, on both an individual and a universal level.
  2. This has given the world hope and motivation for progress. This has led to all the examples of progress that Rabbi Sacks lists in Future Tense, and this also explains why it is so often Jews who lead the way in these fields. These ideas have given the world hope for a brighter future, and that is the core idea at the heart of the concept of a messianic future.

AROUND THE SHABBAT TABLE

  1. Both Joseph and Reish Lakish saw their past in a positive light, with important significance for how they would live their lives in the future. Joseph knew the past was part of God’s plan, and despite the negative aspects of it, it led to a tremendous amount of good. Reish Lakish used his past life for future positive benefit.
  2. While it is only the future that we can shape, going forward, we can also reflect on our past to understand its significance, to make a change in our minds, and use that to build a better future.
  3. See The Core Idea question 2.
  4. See paragraph 4 of Thinking More Deeply, and From the Thought of Rabbi Sacks, as well as the answer to question 1 there.
  5. This is best understood from the final paragraph of the main edition of Covenant & Conversation: “We now see the profound overarching structure of the book of Genesis. It begins with God creating the universe in freedom. It ends with the family of Jacob on the brink of creating a new social universe of freedom which begins in slavery, but ends in the giving and receiving of the Torah, Israel’s “constitution of liberty.” Israel is charged with the task of changing the moral vision of mankind, but it can only do so if individual Jews, of whom the forerunners were Jacob’s children, are capable of changing themselves – that ultimate assertion of freedom we call teshuvah. Time then becomes an arena of change in which the future redeems the past and a new concept is born – the idea we call hope.”

Download the Family Edition for Shemot as a PDF

This Family Edition acts as an accompaniment to the main Covenant & Conversation essay for Shemot 5779 which you can read here.

Read or download other Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions here.