Righteousness knows no racial or religious boundaries

February 24, 2003
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This credo was published in The Times on 24th February 2003

I think about her from time to time — regal, dignified, every inch the princess she was. Yet there was something more about her. Humanity? Courage? Compassion? She knew that she lived under a brutal regime that turned men into slaves and worshipped power as an idol hungry for human sacrifice. Worse, she knew that her own father was the author of this tyranny. He had condemned an entire race to extinction by ordering their children killed at birth.

I doubt whether the reality of that fact had ever really struck her before. It wasn’t the kind of thing they spoke about in the palace. It was all happening a long way away and she preferred not to think about it. Until . . .

One day, about to go for a swim in the Nile, she saw a basket floating downriver. She told one of her attendants to swim out and bring it to her. Even before she opened it, she knew what it contained. She heard the cry of a child and knew, without having to be told, that it belonged to one of the Hebrews.

In her mind she reconstructed the story: a Hebrew slave had given birth, taken the child, wrapped it in a blanket, placed it in a basket and set it loose on the river in the hope that somehow it would circumnavigate the decree of death. And now she, the Egyptian princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, held it in her hands. She had no doubt as to what to do. She would shelter it, adopt it, bring it up as her own. This was Hitler’s daughter, or Eichmann’s or Mussolini’s, saving a Jewish child.

She knew the risks. An ancient Jewish legend of the kind we call Midrash, says that her own servants told her not to go ahead with what she had in mind. She ignored them. She even gave the child its name: Moses (Moses was an Egyptian name, probably meaning “child”, as in Ramses, “child of the sun god”). In the Bible, names are significant. They are given by the parents and in rare cases by God himself (who changes Abram into Abraham and Jacob into Israel). Yet Moses always bears the name given to him by the Egyptian princess. Says the Midrash: “This is the reward for kindness, that even God himself called Moses by the name Pharaoh’s daughter gave him.”

And her own name? On that, the Bible is silent, intimating perhaps that sometimes the greatest deeds are done by people who remain anonymous. Jewish tradition, however, supplied the gap. Elsewhere, in the Book of Chronicles, there is a reference to a “Bityah, daughter of Pharaoh” and they identified it with her. Bityah means “daughter of God.” Once again the Midrash has an explanation, which is that God said: “Moses was not your son, but you called him your son. You are not My daughter, but henceforth I shall call you My daughter.”

I love this story, not only because it tells us what, more recently, we discovered in the Holocaust, that there are those who in an age of evil can stand out against it and defy it — but also because it tells us to look beyond stereotypes. Pharaoh may have been a tyrant but his own daughter was a heroine, her courage eternalised in the book held holy by his victims.

Righteousness knows no racial or religious boundaries. It exists where we least expect it, redeeming our hope in humanity, and our faith that God’s image lives in those who, unblinded by prejudice, see and respond to it in others.