By Shlomo Riskin
The Book of Exodus begins the story of the people of Israel, the nation that developed from the household of Jacob. Many are the differences between this book and the Book of Genesis, but perhaps the greatest change lies in the “personality,” so to speak, of God Himself.
Genesis, the book of creation, refers to God at first as “Elohim,” the sum total of all the powers of the Universe, who created the heavens, the earth and all of their accouterments. This God who brought creation into being works very much alone: God creates, God speaks, God calls forth.
Very different is the God of Exodus. At the opening of this book, God defines Himself as “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” — “I will be what I will be” — the essence of being into the future; the God of history. In effect, God is saying that he will effectuate; he will bring about freedom and redemption, but in an indefinite time that cannot be revealed to Moses.
Why not? Because God now has partners. Firstly, he has his Israelite covenantal partners from the Covenant Between the Pieces of Abraham (Gen. 15). Secondly, he has the nations roundabout and especially the very powerful Egypt. Thirdly, he has the leaders of Israel, especially Moses and his brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam.
If Genesis is the book of creation, Exodus is the book of history, and history is an ongoing process between God and his chosen nation; between God and the nations of the world. God will effectuate, but only together with the cooperation of his partners.
For the remainder of the Five Books of the Pentateuch, Moses will be the strong towering figure, from servitude to freedom to revelation, to wandering in the desert, to our entry into Israel. Strangely, he is introduced in our biblical portion with no personalized mention of pedigree: “A certain man of the House of Levi went and married a Levite woman; the woman conceived and bore a son… and she hid him for three months” (Ex. 2:1).
Why are Moses’s parents anonymous? Perhaps because it really doesn’t matter who your parents are: It matters who you are. Perhaps because we shall learn that he had a second mother who nurtured him, who saved his life from the baby-slaying Egyptians, who named him her son (Moses, in ancient Egyptian, means “son”) and brought him up in Pharaoh’s palace; perhaps to teach us that only someone who came from the “outside” could free himself of the slave mentality and emancipate the Hebrew slaves. Or, perhaps to teach us that although the Egyptians enslaved us, it was also an
Egyptian woman who endangered her life to save a Hebrew child.
It is only in Chapter 6 of Exodus that we learn the names of Moses’s biological parents, and trace his pedigree from his parents Amram and Jochebed all the way back to the children of Jacob. This study of his roots comes just at the time that he is about to confront Pharaoh for the first time and begin his mission to free the Hebrew slaves. Nevertheless, the Bible tells us nothing at all about Moses’s parents, their characters or their activities; only their names.
To be sure, we will learn much from the Bible about the achievements of Moses, who was not only a great political liberator but who also “spoke to God face to face” (as it were) and revealed God’s Torah laws for all posterity. We will also come to know his remarkable siblings, Aaron and Miriam. But we cannot help but be curious about the two individuals who bore and to a great extent raised the three greatest leaders in Jewish history.
I may not know much about the parents of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, but I do know volumes about the grandparents of these three extraordinary people. Just imagine the circumcision ceremony that was made for Moses’ father and the simhat bat – celebration for a daughter — for Moses’s mother, rituals which must have occurred in fearful secrecy during a period of slavery and persecution. The history of the children of Israel seems to be ending almost before it began, in the hellholes of Pithom and Raamses, in the turpitude of debasement and oppression.
Nevertheless, one set of parent’s name their son Amram, “exalted nation,” and the other set of parents name their daughter Jochebed, “glory to God.” These grandparents had apparently been nourished on the Covenant Between the Pieces, upon the familial prophecy of “offspring who will be strangers in a land not theirs, who will be enslaved and oppressed, but…in the end will go free with great wealth” (Gen.15: 13-14), and will return to the land of their fathers.
These grandparents apparently inspired their grandchildren with faith in the exalted status of their nation; a nation that will eventually bring the blessing of freedom and morality to all the families of the earth, with the ability to give glory to God in the darkest of times because they knew that eventually His great light would shine upon all of humanity. I may not know much about Moses’ parents, but by the names they bestowed upon their children I know volumes about his grandparents.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.