Every child, even a child of your enemies, is holy

23 March 2012
batya moshe basket egypt pharaoh nile miriam saving enemies moses

Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 23rd March 2012

This week we in the Jewish community were just beginning our preparations for Passover, the festival of freedom, when we heard about the murder of three young children and a Rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. They weren’t the only victims of this particular killer. And every murder, every act of terror, is tragic. But somehow the coldblooded killing of young children at a school is peculiarly so because it negates our most basic feelings of humanity. So our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims. We share their shock and grief.

But there’s one detail in the story of Passover, told in the book of Exodus, that seems to me especially relevant, even moving. The story begins with Pharaoh not just enslaving the Israelites but also telling his people to murder every male Israelite child by throwing it into the Nile. An Israelite woman has a child, and after a while, unable to hide it any longer, puts it in a basket and sets it afloat on the river.

There it is spotted by an Egyptian, not any Egyptian but the daughter of the Pharaoh who issued the decree. Not only does she disobey it. She rescues the child, adopts it and gives it a name, Moses. That child grew up to be the man who rescued his people from slavery. And that one act of courage by Pharaoh’s daughter tells us that compassion, especially for the very young, must transcend every ethnic or religious conflict.

There’s an even deeper message hidden in the biblical text. The Bible says that the name Moses means, “I drew it from the water.” And that’s its etymology in Hebrew. But of course Pharaoh’s daughter wasn’t speaking Hebrew. She was speaking Egyptian. And the word "moses", in Egyptian, is very much like the name Ramses, the man many scholars believe was the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Moses in ancient Egyptian meant “child.”

And we now see the hidden drama of the name. Ramses means child of Ra, the Egyptian sun god, which is what some pharaohs believed they were: demigods, semi-divine beings set apart from the rest of humanity. And what was Moses? A mere child, whose natural parents were slaves.

The name Pharaoh’s daughter gave to that child was meant to teach her people that every child, even a child of your enemies, is holy. In a week in which children became the victims of terror, it’s a lesson no one should ever forget.