Miriam, Moshe’s older sister, goes to extraordinary lengths to look out for her younger brother. She is unwilling to simply turn her back and walk away as Moshe is placed in an ark and set adrift on the Nile
In a sense, the entire first book of the Torah is a book of sibling intrigue, involving competition, jealousy and even murder. As Abel’s bloodied, lifeless body lies on the ground in a lonely field, God calls out to Cain and asks, or perhaps demands, “Where is your brother Abel?’ Cain responds cynically, “Am I my brother’s keeper”? The answer, of course, is a resounding “YES!” We are, indeed, responsible for our brothers and sisters, our immediate and extended families.
At various critical points throughout the book of Bereishit, this lesson seems to have been forgotten. Vicious cycles play themselves out over and over: More hatred, more jealousy. Even when violence is narrowly averted, it is a constant threat. Yosef, who was a victim of his brothers’ ire, forces this problem out of the shadows of the subconscious and up to the surface, orchestrating the situation in which Yehudah, the very person who had spearheaded the violence against him, morphs into the protector of his brother Binyamin. In the final chapters, despite everything that has been said and done, Yosef takes care of his brothers - much to their surprise. The book of Bereishit comes to a close with this chord of conciliation and brotherly responsibility.
Now, a new book begins with a particularly tender scene: Miriam, Moshe’s older sister, goes to extraordinary lengths to look out for her younger brother. She is unwilling to simply turn her back and walk away as Moshe is placed in an ark and set adrift on the Nile. When her brother is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, Miriam steps in with an offer to help “find” a wet nurse who is willing to care for this infant. Conveniently enough, not only is Moshe temporarily returned to his mother, but she is paid to fulfill her heart’s deepest desire: to nurse and nurture her son. All of this is made possible through Miriam’s love.
As a result of Miriam’s concern for her brother’s welfare, Moshe is returned to his home and family, and in addition to his mother’s milk, he receives a rudimentary Jewish education and a very strong sense of Jewish identity that manifests itself years later: When Moshe leaves the comfort and security of his home in Pharaoh’s palace and goes out to seek his brothers, he witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jew:
Now it came to pass in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers. (2:11)
In a scene so similar to - yet so different from - the Cain and Abel scene, once again a life is taken. This time, it is taken to defend a brother who was being beaten to death, whereas Abel’s death was senseless and morally indefensible, the result of anger and jealousy.
In a very real sense, Moshe’s unique gifts as a leader and savior of the Jewish People shine through in this early scene: He defends the weak, rescues the victim, and takes an unequivocal moral stand. But there is another message in this episode that should not be overlooked: The person Moshe rescued was an anonymous Jew, not only to us but to Moshe as well. This unfortunate slave was, in fact, a stranger to Moshe – but Moshe saw him as a brother. Moshe had gone out in search of his brothers, and he felt an unshakeable sense of kinship and responsibility toward this unnamed Jew – and every other member of his People. Apparently, the lesson Moshe learned from his sister had sunk in: Never turn your back on a brother or sister. Brothers do not harm one another; they most certainly do not kill one another, nor do they sell their siblings into slavery. Moshe, the beneficiary of his sister Miriam’s love and devotion, in turn seeks out brothers to aid and protect. This is the foundation of Moshe’s identity, and it becomes the cornerstone of his personality as the greatest leader of the Jewish People.
As readers, we would do well to pause and consider these spiritual giants, the men and women who populate the Book of Sh’mot and lay the groundwork for the redemption of the Jewish People. In particular, we might contrast their words and actions with the pathetic behavior so often found in Bereishit – the jealousy, the callous disregard for the welfare and rights of others, the selfishness, egotism and ingratitude that results in exile and destruction, discord and death. The contrast highlights the fact that Sh’mot is not merely a new book; it is cause for new hope. It is the story of the emergence of a new nation - a nation that is a family, a nation whose members take responsibility for one another, a nation that can only thrive when no brother or sister is left behind.
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