In this week’s parsha, the daughter of Pharoah goes down to bathe in the Nile while her maidens walk along the river. She spies a basket among the reeds and sends her slave girl to fetch it. The next verse tells us: “Vatiftach, vitirayhu et hayeled vihiney naar bocheh,” “she opened the basket, and she saw that it was a child, and behold the young man, was crying, and so she said: This must be one of the Hebrew children.”
Rabbi Jack Riemer notes that Moses was not a child; he was a tinok, an infant, so why does Pharoah’s daughter call him a child? And secondly, why does she refer to him two different ways, first as a child, and then perhaps even more strangely, as a young man?
Based on an explanation by Rabbi Pesach Krohn, Riemer offers the following: Perhaps it was not the crying of Moses that Pharoah’s daughter heard, but rather the sound of his older brother, Aaron, standing somewhere nearby with Miriam, crying because he could do nothing to save his younger brother. Or maybe Aaron was crying because he felt Moshe’s pain, the pain of being alone in that basket and probably hungry. And when she said, “Surely this must be one of the Hebrew children,” perhaps Pharoah’s daughter was giving us a simple, short definition of what it means to be a “Hebrew,” a Jew. A Jew should be one who feels the pain and cries on behalf of someone else, a person who cares about and feels the pain of others.
Moshe models this later in the parshat, as well. The Torah tells us that Moshe grows up and “vayetze el echav, vayar bsivlotam,” “he went out to his brothers and he saw their suffering.” Why was Moshe able to see the suffering when there are so many people in the world who don’t see suffering? The answer is in the language of the verse: He was able to see it because he went out to his brothers. In order to see people’s suffering, we have to feel a connection to them; we have to first see them as echav, as brothers and sisters. Moshe sees the Israelites as his brothers, and because of that, his eyes are open to see their suffering.
And the opposite is also true. How do you know that you are truly connected to someone or that you truly love someone — it’s when you know their pain, when you know what hurts them. It’s like the story that’s told of the rabbi who accompanies her husband to the doctor because his foot is hurting. The doctor asks, “So what’s wrong?” And the rabbi replies, “We’re here because my husband’s foot is hurting us.” To feel someone’s pain is a sign of true connection.
But why did Moshe see the Israelites as brothers in the first place? After all, he didn’t grow up with them. He wasn’t trained to feel connected to them. Again, the language of verse is instructive: “He went out to his brothers.” He was a person who was able to imagine beyond the confines of his own experience. In order to be able to connect with anyone in this world, whether to feel their pain or joy, we need to go out, we need to step out of ourselves and remember that we are not alone in this world.
The language of our parshat can teach us how to live up to and into our identity as Jews, to think beyond ourselves so that we can see suffering. In knowing and feeling the pain of others, we take the first critical step toward relieving it. JN
Rabbi Elana Kanter is the director of the Women’s Leadership Institute and co-Rabbi of The New Shul.