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Acting Like Pharaoh's Daughter - Not Like Pharaoh Himself

Acting Like Pharaoh's Daughter - Not Like Pharaoh Himself

Bank of the Nile River beneath a shining red sunset

It’s hard to imagine what went through the mind of Pharaoh’s daughter when she decided to save the infant she spotted floating in the Nile River. Maybe she was surprised or shocked. Maybe she knew of the royal decree against Israelite boys, but was moved toward defiant action when faced with the heartbreaking reality of her father’s command:

וְהִנֵּה־נַ֖עַר בֹּכֶ֑ה וַתַּחְמֹ֣ל עָלָ֔יו
She took pity on it and said, 'This must be a Hebrew child'" (Exodus 2:6).

This act of kindness, of seeing the humanity of the other, changed the trajectory of the entire Jewish people. While this is a famous section of our narrative, I don’t think we quite give Pharaoh’s daughter the credit she deserves for her courageous act. 

It is rare to encounter examples of morality, justice and human kindness from the non-Jews/non-Israelites in our Biblical narrative (though there are of course several important exceptions), but here is one worth reflecting on in our current political moment.

While there are several crises brewing in Israel right now, I want to call our attention to the recent proposal to expel African asylum seekers from the country. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, using incendiary rhetoric said, “The infiltrators have a simple choice. Either cooperate with us and leave voluntarily, respectably, humanely, legally — or we’ll have to use other means at our disposal, which are also lawful.” 

Yes, if this government passes a law calling for this expulsion, then those means will indeed be legal, but will they be just? Will they be Jewish? There are some 37,885 Eritrean and Sudanese natives seeking asylum, with another 5,000 children born in Israel. The parents escaped genocide and oppressive regimes, and similar to the Dreamers in the U.S., these children know no different reality and risk being deported to a truly foreign place. 

This expulsion may be technically permissible, but that does not make it moral or decent. It would ignore the 36 times we are commanded to welcome the stranger, for we were once strangers ourselves. It is this expulsion that poses the threat to the Jewish character of the State, not their presence.

So what was going through the mind of Pharaoh’s daughter and how can we replicate her courage? Rashi tells us, quoting the Talmud (Sotah 12) that upon opening the basket “וַתִּפְתַּח֙ וַתִּרְאֵ֣הוּ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד“ she saw the Shechina, or God’s presence, with the child. Before expelling those who wandered in the desert to reach the nearest safe haven, let us look at them and see theShechina. We might then act more like Pharaoh’s daughter than like Pharaoh.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA, the Zionist wing of the Reform Jewish Movement.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg
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