09 Jan Sh’mot: You can’t save them all
At times there seems to be so much around us that needs fixing. We try to do what we can, but are overwhelmed by the scope of the task at hand. There is hardship and suffering all around the world, and the the book of Exodus, which we begin reading this week, has been inspiring those fighting for liberation and justice, for well over 2,000 years.
In this week’s Torah reading we are introduced to Moses. Things have changed quite a bit since the final scenes of Genesis and the Israelites are no longer honored guests in Egypt:
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” (Ex. 1:8-10)
Fear breeds cruelty and with time Pharaoh issues a particularly barbaric edict:
Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile… (ibid. 22)
The biblical text gives no details but the Rabbi Yossi ben Hanina (3rd century, Land of Israel) augments the account:
His edict included even his the boys of his own people! And why did he do this? His astrologists had said to him, “The mother of the savior of the Israelites is pregnant with him, but we don’t know if she is an Israelite or an Egyptian. Immediately, Pharaoh gathered all of the Egyptians and said to them, “Lend me your children for 9 months …” (Midrash Shmot Rabbah 1:18)
And yet, one family found a way around the harsh decree:
Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. (Ex. 2:1-3)
However, as fate would have it, Pharaoh’s own daughter would be instrumental in undoing her father’s designs:
Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said… …When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses,[b] saying, “I drew him out of the water.”(Ex. 2:5-6,10)
Water will feature all throughout Moses’ career as savior of the Israelites: The Nile will turn to blood in order to intimidate Pharaoh, the Reed Sea will split, allowing the fleeing slaves to escape from the Egyptians and water will flow from a rock to quench the people’s thirst. But for now, the focus is upon the scene by the banks of the River. Below is a frontispiece from a Haggadah printed in Vienna in 1826. Interestingly, the publisher’s choice for the only illustrations in the entire book revolve around the 2 texts above:
Like many of the images I’ve come across in the Gross Family Collection, both of the above illustrations are roughly based on an illustration first published by Mattaus Merion of Basel in 1630. One can easily see that the same setting is used for both stories. Whether the artist, Ant. Biermayer of Presburg copied this setting directly from one of the many publications containing Merion’s illustrations, or from another artist who did, is unknown, but it seems clear, despite the differences, that the image below is the original inspiration:
The reason for the somewhat reverse form of the image is that it was copied from the engraving itself and not from the printed picture. In any case, notice that the original described the scene of Pharaoh’s daughter saving Moses and not the drowning babies.
However, in the well-known Amsterdam Haggadah published in 1695, we find the same setting used for both stories:
Two passages: “Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: ‘Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile'” and “Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe” are inscribed below the image, thereby combining to separate parts of the narrative into one. One might interpret this pictorial juxtaposition as if to say, “True, Moses was saved, but what about all the other baby boys who were drowning!”. Or, alternatively, one might understand, “Despite the tragedy of infant death all around, one baby was saved, one who will eventually lead his people from slavery to freedom”.
Ultimately, both interpretations suggested by this image are useful. Anyone involved in the effort to improve the society is constantly confronted with this duality. One one hand, whatever we do is merely a drop in the bucket, yet on the other hand, every little bit helps.
May the later encourage us to continue in our work to fix the world and may the former keep us modes about those achievements.