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Parashat Shemot: How to Raise a Moses

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Exodus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

How to Raise a Moses

The birth of Moses, which is described in this morning’s scriptural reading, is mentioned by the Rabbis in a most interesting and extraordinary Talmudic passage (Song of Songs Rabba 1:3). They aver that Rabbi Judah the Prince, known as Rebbe, was “yosheiv vedoresh,” preaching to his congregation. And as he was so doing, he was faced with a most distressing problem that has presented itself to generations of public speakers, and especially rabbis and preachers: “nitnanem hatzibbur,” “his audience began to fall asleep.” To this day, that is a major problem that is rather difficult to solve. Even the very best speaker always has one or two people in his audience who prefer a cozy nap to challenging oratory, and who find more consolation in dozing than in thinking. It is sometimes fascinating to watch heads nod and eyes grow heavy, even before the speaker has opened his mouth. When, however, the entire congregation starts to doze off, that is a bad situation. And so, moved by the speaker’s instincts, Rebbe “bikeish le’oreran,” “he tried to wake them up.”

How do you wake up a sleeping congregation? Some speakers merely raise their voices. Trusting in volume more than in quality, they shout their listeners out of sleep. Other, and more modern brands of rabbis, turn sensational, and they change themes to the Kinsey-review type of talk. Perhaps that will keep them awake. It is a kind of sensationalism that works at times. But a Rebbe – a saint and a scholar – does not rely on such techniques. He relies on other kinds of methods. And so, he said: “yalda isha beMitzrayim shishim ribo bekeres aĥat,” “one Jewish woman in Egypt gave birth to 600,000 children at one time.” A rather sensational remark. And it is meticulously recorded by our Rabbis that at least one of his listeners was jolted by this piece of intelligence, and his name was Yishmael ben Rabbi Yose, and he asked Rebbe what he meant by that, and how it was possible. And Rebbe replied, “zu Yokheved sheyalda et Moshe sheshakul keneged shishim ribo shel Yisrael,” the woman was Yocheved, mother of Moses, who bore Moses, who was as worthy and weighty as the 600,000 Jews he led out of Egypt to freedom and Revelation.

It is, indeed, a sensational remark. It is sensational that a woman can be blessed with a son who can lead and spark and inspire and teach a whole nation. It is sensational for parents to be the lucky parents of a Moses. Not everyone has that good fortune. And yet, all parents ask themselves and ask others, what do we have to do to deserve great children – not just well-adjusted children who will follow the lead of everyone else, not just children who will be colorlessly “normal,” who will never rise higher than the pitifully low average and remain happy in their ignorance and commonness – but children who will serve and inspire and lead and achieve for a whole people and a whole world? How can parents deserve that kind of child? How can they become parents of Moseses? That is the question. And the only way to answer that question is to learn something about Amram, the father of Moses, and Yocheved – she who, according to Rebbe, gave birth to 600,000 at one time. Three qualities will become clear to us, three qualities possessed by the parents of Moses that can be emulated by modern adults who wish to be proud forebears of great progeny.

The first prerequisite for seeing greatness in your child is to have some of it yourself. Superiority and greatness are not spontaneously generated. A child must be able to observe, subconsciously, the personalities and conduct of his parents. Only then can he build on that foundation. Before a child can flower into greatness, he must receive a seed of it from his parents.

Thus, Amram is described in our Rabbinic literature (Midrash Sekhel Tov, Exodus, ch. 2), as “gedol Yisrael ugedol ha’aretz,” “a great Jew and a great man.” He was a leader of his people, and though he never attained a tenth of his son’s greatness and renown, nevertheless, his own superiority was something which Moses was able to develop further. Yocheved is known as “isha tzadkanit,” a most pious and righteous woman (Sota 11b). Only when a mother is devout can her son become a true saint, a Moses.

Basically, therefore, it is important for parents to remember that the way to raise great children is not to forsake their own development. By concentrating solely on their children’s development and completely neglecting their own, parents give children the impression that study and achievement and religion and the like are only for children. Why, then, should they continue to practice it when they come of age? For a child to be studious, he must see his father and mother reading and studying. For a child to be generous, he must see generosity in his parents. For a child to be sincere and hard-working, he must notice at least a trace of it in his elders. Prerequisite number one, then, for great children, is un-petty and un-small parents – adults who themselves aspire to self-development.

The second quality goes a step further. Not only must a father and mother each be superior in his and her own right, but they must be magnanimous towards each other. In other words, there must be a good, peaceful, happy, and loving home. An exemplary Jewish home is a splendid way of assuring eminent children. Our Rabbis said (Shabbat 23b) that “haragil beneir havyen lei banim talmidei ĥakhamim,” “a woman who faithfully observes the requirement to light the Sabbath candles will have children who will be scholars.” Why? Because, as we know, the neirot Shabbat are the symbol of shalom bayit, of domestic happiness and conjugal bliss. Where there is a good home, there will be good children.

Listen to the Bible’s description of the origins of Moses: “vayelekh ish mibeit Levi vayikaĥ et bat Levi,” a man from the tribe of Levi married a woman from the same tribe (Exodus 2:1). That is all. No fanfare, no deification of the parents, no ascension to heaven, no beatification or official sainthood for his father or his mother. And, as the Zohar points out, not even their names are given in this simple account! It is all betzina, all in modesty and humbleness and quietness. That is the true mark of a good Jewish home – tzina. It is a quiet and peaceful, unnoisy, and gentle home. It is a home of shalom bayit that can produce a Moses. It is a home where parents are devoted to each other, where Shabbos is Shabbos, and where great difficulties are solved by recourse to God. The historian Josephus records in his Antiquities (Book ii, ch. ix: 3) a beautiful prayer that Amram prayed before Moses was born, asking God to protect the Jewish people, and the appearance of God in a dream to Amram, telling him that his son, soon to be born, will be the one who will deliver Israel from its foes, and “his memory shall be famous while the world lasts.” When parents are devoted to each other, and remember God, their child has the chance to be like Moses, the memory of whom lasts forever.

The third quality is one demonstrated by Amram in a remarkable and striking story recorded by our Sages (Mekhilta DeRashbi, 2:19a). Remember that Pharaoh had ordained that every Jewish boy be drowned in the Nile. It was clearly the plan of Egypt to execute genocide against Israel and destroy them forever. And the plan was put into effect, and Jewish babies were being killed by the thousands. Imagine the bitterness of Jewish parents, especially mothers, who had labored and travailed and then had their babes torn out of their embracing arms to be cast into the river before their very eyes. What unimaginable anguish they must have experienced as year after year their children were taken from them and killed! When Amram, who, as previously stated, was a leader of the Israelites, saw what was occurring, he divorced his wife, and counseled all Jews to do the same, crying out “lama anu meyagim et atzmeinu leĥinam,” “why do we labor for naught?” What use is there in bearing children if they are to be killed? Why go on with life when no life is promised to us? Let us put an end to this tragic farce! Let us not produce targets for their trigger-practice. Let us not give the Egyptians the opportunity to impose their sadism upon our tots. Let every Jewish man leave his wife, and let no more Jewish children be born. Let us not fight against fate.

And so, for a long while, according to tradition, Amram separated from Yocheved, and the great majority of all Israelites did the same. But then his daughter, Miriam, urged him to reconsider. She told him this was no solution, since by doing this he was merely saving the Egyptian hordes the task of making Israel extinct. She spoke to him of hope and courage and determination and sacrifice. And Amram listened to his daughter. He began to understand that it is truly possible that some day the dark and heavy clouds will part to allow a ray of sunshine to brighten their lives. He began to foresee the possibility that God would not remain silent, that help would yet come, and that despair would not solve anything. And so he instructed his people to return to their wives and their homes and fling a challenge to the teeth of Fate. And how beautifully do the Sages describe the remarriage of Amram and Yocheved: Amram built an “apiryon” or ĥuppa for her, and their children, Aaron and Miriam, danced before them. The very angels of heaven sang for them with the words “eim habanim semeiĥa halleluya,” “the mother of children is happy, praise the Lord” (Psalms 113:9). And out of that remarriage was born Moses, the very person who would force the black clouds apart and bring the rays of freedom into the empty lives of his downtrodden people. “Vehiskima da’ato leda’at haMakom,” say our Rabbis – Amram’s decision was in accordance with God’s will.

That is what parents must be if their children are to be Moseses. They must have faith even when in the hard grip of doom and gloom. They must show courage even when it seems utterly ridiculous to do so. They must be able to challenge destiny and dare fate and stand firm in the face of overwhelming odds and almost certain defeat. That trust in the future, in God’s justice, is what gives parents the right to have a child like Moses.

Amram and Yocheved were able to foresee ultimate help. Moses was then the man to prophesize geula even during the thick of galut. Amram and Yocheved looked into the waters of the Nile and saw that God would save the indestructible babies cast therein. Moses was able to see a “seneh bo’er ba’esh,” the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), in the desert, the bush which burns but is never destroyed.

That is a mark of greatness – the ability to hope and hold out for the sun to shine again. Only that can awaken a slumbering, moribund, coma-bound people. Let no one ever question where the next generation of Jews will come from. They will come from big cities and small towns, wherever there is a Jewish school and wherever there are parents who have in them a touch of Amram and Yocheved, parents of Moses.

If there be amongst us a man and woman who can continue his and her own development and growth as true and great Jews and Jewesses, and who can live, husband with wife, so that the Jewish verities and virtues and tzina and shalom bayit are truly implanted in their home – a home of domestic happiness and Jewishness, and maximal Jewish education – and if these people can doggedly maintain the firm faith that greater times are yet to come for our people and that we must build and plan and labor for those great times when Jews will be great and learned and proud and unashamed and full-blooded Jews, then such parents deserve Moseses. It is they who will give birth to millions at one time, to men and women who will rise to the leadership of Israel and serve their people and their God in truth and faith.

It was not so long ago that every Jewish mother harbored the secret wish that her child become the Mashiaĥ, the savior of Israel. And no, it was not naïve or primitive. It was Jewish through and through. The wife of R. Maimon in Spain wanted – and got – a Maimonides for a child. The mother of the Vilna Gaon prayed for one like him, and deserved him, and therefore bore him. Who would not have laughed at the mothers of the leaders of modern Israel had they heard them silently praying that their children be leaders of their people?

It is this that can wake up a people when “nitnamnem hatzibur,” when they begin to succumb to another sleep. It is this which can shake them out of the lethargy and drowsiness which come from despair. Yes, a woman can give birth to 600,000. A parent can develop a child who will reflect the worth and value and strength of an entire people. It can be done. But it requires these three: self-development of the parents, a good Jewish home of happiness and peace and Torah, and the faith and courage and strength to hope and hold out for better and greater eras to come.

There is nothing more sensational than the knowledge that it is within the power of each and every one of us to raise a Moses.