These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE Dvar Torah] A Woman’s Insight by David Bogomolny

Posted on December 30, 2012 by David Bogomolny

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This week we are starting the sefer (book) of Shemot (Exodus), which literally means ‘names’. The weekly parasha is also called Shemot. I mention this because the first name that comes to my mind when I read this parasha is iy‘Isra Yaghoubi’ (Year ’08-’09, Fellows ’09-’10). She was my first Chumash havruta, and she left me with many clever Torah insights and lots of fond memories. This dvar Torah is l’zchutah (for her merit).

The section of Parshat Shemot that I’d like to focus on is at the beginning of Perek Bet (Chapter two) of Sefer Shemot:

א. וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ, מִבֵּית לֵוִי; וַיִּקַּח, אֶת-בַּת-לֵוִי1. And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi.
ב. וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא, וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה יְרָחִים2. And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.
ג. וְלֹא-יָכְלָה עוֹד, הַצְּפִינוֹ, וַתִּקַּח-לוֹ תֵּבַת גֹּמֶא, וַתַּחְמְרָה בַחֵמָר וּבַזָּפֶת; וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד, וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל-שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר3. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child therein, and laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.
ד. וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק, לְדֵעָה, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ4. And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him.
ה. וַתֵּרֶד בַּת-פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל-הַיְאֹר, וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל-יַד הַיְאֹר; וַתֵּרֶא אֶת-הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף, וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת-אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ5. And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river; and her maidens walked along by the river-side; and she saw the ark among the flags, and sent her handmaid to fetch it.
ו. וַתִּפְתַּח וַתִּרְאֵהוּ אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד, וְהִנֵּה-נַעַר בֹּכֶה; וַתַּחְמֹל עָלָיו–וַתֹּאמֶר, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה6. And she opened it, and saw it, even the child; and behold a boy that wept. And she had compassion on him, and said: ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.’
ז. וַתֹּאמֶר אֲחֹתוֹ, אֶל-בַּת-פַּרְעֹה, הַאֵלֵךְ וְקָרָאתִי לָךְ אִשָּׁה מֵינֶקֶת, מִן הָעִבְרִיֹּת; וְתֵינִק לָךְ, אֶת-הַיָּלֶד7. Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter: ‘Shall I go and call thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?’
ח. וַתֹּאמֶר-לָהּ בַּת-פַּרְעֹה, לֵכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, הָעַלְמָה, וַתִּקְרָא, אֶת-אֵם הַיָּלֶד8. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her: ‘Go.’ And the maiden went and called the child’s mother.
ט. וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ בַּת-פַּרְעֹה, הֵילִיכִי אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד הַזֶּה וְהֵינִקִהוּ לִי, וַאֲנִי, אֶתֵּן אֶת-שְׂכָרֵךְ; וַתִּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּנִיקֵהוּ9. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her: ‘Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.’ And the woman took the child, and nursed it.
י. וַיִּגְדַּל הַיֶּלֶד, וַתְּבִאֵהוּ לְבַת-פַּרְעֹה, וַיְהִי-לָהּ, לְבֵן; וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, מֹשֶׁה, וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי מִן-הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ10. And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.’

Isra and I were interested to note that Pharaoh’s daughter sends the baby Moses away with his wet nurse for a significant period of time – long enough that he grows up (וַיִּגְדַּל). Most of the medieval commentators have nothing to say about this; only Rav Sa’adiah Gaon comments:

י. ‘ויגדל’: וכאשר גדל10. ‘and he grew’: and when he grew

Not very helpful, we felt.

But then he also teased out another word in that same pasuk (verse), which we didn’t expect:

י. ‘לבן’: כבן10. lit. ‘to son’: like a son

In truth, the word ‘לבן’ doesn’t make literal sense in this phrase – it has to be interpreted a bit in order to best fit coherently, and Rav Sa’adiah Gaon‘s interpretation is the most reasonable one. Still, this comment felt unnecessary – how else could we understand this pasuk?

The Midrash Rabbah suggests the following:

י. ‘ויגדל הילד’: עשרים וארבעה חדש הניקתהו, ואתה אומר ‘ויגדל הילד’: אלא שהיה גדל שלא כדרך כל הארץ10. ‘and the boy grew’: she suckled him for twenty-four months; but you say, ‘and the boy grew’: rather that he grew in “an unnatural way”.

So now we have two explanations to work with.

The first is a natural explanation of ‘and he grew’, which simply marks the amount of time that Moses was with his wet nurse, away from Pharaoh’s daughter. The second is a supernatural interpretation, which suggests that Moses grew abnormally (large? quickly?).

And at this point during our havruta, Isra paused reflectively and looked at me.

“The natural explanation makes more sense to me,” she opined, “particularly in the context of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s attempt to understand the word ‘לבן’… ‘like a son’. Pharaoh’s daughter really loved Moses ‘like a son’!

Imagine how painful it must have been for her to be unable to nurse her baby. Perhaps she sent him away for such a long time because she couldn’t bear to watch another woman nurse him.”

I looked at Isra, amazed; her insight was so beautiful. As a man, I would never have thought to empathize with a mother’s natural desire to nurse her baby.

Here in the Pardes beit midrash I had the privilege of a havruta such as Isra – a woman passionate about Torah study, contemplative about her womanhood, able to reflect upon Jewish texts through an insightful and intimate lens, and confident enough to articulate her understanding of the text to me – her lucky havruta.

This year, I am proud to share this dvar with all of you.