In parashat Shemot, a remarkable mother-daughter duo emerges, demonstrating a level of collaboration that, with all its attention on parent-child interactions, the book of Genesis had not presented. What differs in the story of Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, is the backdrop of political oppression and indeed, attempted genocide.
Their story unfolds in a few terse verses. “The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him (Exodus 2:2-4).”
The commentators, of course, fill in the gaps. Some midrashim say that Miriam initiated her decision to stay by the little basket, putting her in the position to approach Pharoah’s daughter and save her brother’s life. Such an action would be consistent with other traditional insights into Miriam’s resolve. The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a teaches that Amram and Yocheved separated after Pharoah’s decrees that the boys be thrown in the river, despairing of having any children. But the young Miriam urged her parents to remarry and to resume childbearing, citing the value of female babies. Rabbi Chuck Feinberg suggested to me that perhaps Miriam felt compelled to follow the small ark’s journey down the Nile, given her role in promoting her parents’ reunion.
More ominously, though, other commentators speak to Yocheved’s instructions that in my mind, specifically put Miriam at risk in her role of watching the baby. Sha’arei Aharon identifies Yocheved as entrusting Miriam to watch over the basket, to make sure that the rushing water does not overturn it and drown the baby. The Bechor Schor argues that Yocheved insisted that her daughter Miriam stand by the shore and keep watch. Rabbeinu Bachya and the Netziv also support this role for Yocheved.
Is the latter version correct? If so, Yocheved’s directive astonishes me. Miriam was seven years old, and one might think that her parent’s primary role was to protect her. Yet Yocheved assigns Miriam to this dangerous duty, placing one child at risk to protect another. I began to wonder: how do normal family behaviors change in times of, or in response to, political oppression, even genocide? This is surely a challenge for Jews throughout our history.
Some of the questions I have about family choices and political risk feel very personal. Would I have been willing to have my house be a stop on the Underground Railroad, for example? Would the age of children in my household have mattered in that choice? If I was a German, would I have put my family at risk to shelter a Jewish family during World War II? Would I have put my children in a different kind of risk – a risk for an adulthood that I might not respect — had I not?
Can parents consent to, or, like Yocheved vis-à-vis Miram, directly entangle their children in risky behaviors for a political cause, especially ones that parents endorse? I think back on my own experiences, traveling to Soviet Union to visit refuseniks when I was 21. My mother had to give her consent for my participation to the Philadelphia Hillel, which facilitated the trip, yet as the day of departure approached, worried aloud about what would happen to me. I remember how foolish I thought she was – what could happen to me, after all, a US citizen? It wasn’t hard, years later, to recognize the exasperated tone of voice I had used in that conversation, as one of my children countered my concerns over a planned expedition. In contrast, Yocheved is not just consenting to Miriam’s watchful presence, but demanding it!
Millennia after Miriam, another Jewish mother and child, in agreement on the son’s actions to counter political oppression, have a story that did not end as well. Carolyn Goodman was the mother of slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman, who was killed along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner trying to register black voters in Mississippi. She wrote a memoir of her life, My Mantlepiece, with co-author Brad Herzog. In a 2014 essay in Cornell Alumni Magazine, Herzog later reflected, “I found myself captivated by the notion of a mother’s internal battle – role model vs. protector – when considering whether or not to permit her son to volunteer in Mississippi. “My son wanted to be a beacon of light in the heart of darkness,” Carolyn later told me. “How could I deny him?” …. Carolyn’s legacy will forever be tied to her son’s death in Mississippi, but it is also evident in the activist passion and courage she instilled in her son, the qualities that spurred him to volunteer in the first place. As she explained: “I allowed him to go there, and I was both guilt-ridden and proud, and I devoted the rest of my life to making sure he did not die in vain. I permitted him to go to Mississippi because that is who he was. And it is who I was, too.”
Carolyn Goodman’s last comment – ‘And that is who I was, too’ – suggests a fluidity of identity and purpose between mother and son, and one I found mirrored in the story of Yocheved and Miriam.
In contrast, consider the experience of Moses and his sons, Gershon and Eliezer. Trying to protect his sons, Moses left them in Midian, and they missed the experiences of slavery, the Exodus, and the giving of Torah. Professor Adrian Ziderman of Bar-Ilan University, in a drash on parashat Yitro, acknowledges Moses’ natural inclination to protect his sons from hardship and danger. Yet he wonders whether this caution accounts for the sons’ near-absence of mention in Torah and for their lack of future leadership in the Israelite community.
Our parasha describes a relationship of unusual collaboration and near-interchangeability of roles between mother and daughter. Tellingly, we do not get the same sense of the relationship of Yocheved and Moses. Richard Elliott Friedman, in a close reading of the text, reminds us that Pharoah’s daughter did indeed name the baby Moses, but not until he was returned to her after three years of Yocheved’s care. Prior to that, the story only refers to ‘hayeled’ – the boy. Did Amram and Yocheved hesitate to name their child, perhaps in anticipatory grief that he would one day be torn away from them? That, tragically, can also be a model of family relationships in times of oppression.