Wanted: Pharaoh's Daughter

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The morning brings news of a New American Pharaoh. He doesn’t remember the ancestors, never studied their ways, doesn’t ask the wind to bear their spirit on its wings.
The inauguration of the new Pharaoh coincides with the Torah portion, Shemot. The beginning of the book of Exodus, it couldn’t be more relevant. As it opens, Pharaoh addresses his people.
“His people” don’t include Israelites.
“Look,” he says, “there’s just too many Israelites.” They’re taking over. “Let’s be smart about them. You never know. They might join our enemies. They might attack us. Get ’em out of here.”
Make Egypt Great Again.
Leaders from Pharaoh to Trump have built their brand on “us versus them,” consolidating power through fear and suspicion.
But what’s remarkable about the book of Exodus is not the story of degradation, but the improbable redemption from the oppression of body and spirit – and the people who inspire and instigate it.
While Pharaoh orders the murder of all Hebrew boy babies, a redeemer is born in the baby Moses. He survives only through the sweat and cunning of principled women.
Five women, to be exact. Two midwives, Shifra and Puah, famously defy Pharaoh’s decree through civil disobedience, refusing to kill the Hebrew boys. They lie to Pharaoh, turn his dehumanizing rhetoric about the Hebrews against him. “You know those Hebrew women. They’re animals! They give birth before we even get there.”
And when it is that Moses is born, his mother Yocheved hides him from the murderous regime, sending him down the Nile in a basket when the risk is too great to bear. Moses’ sister, Miriam, watches over him as he makes his river journey.
But it is the fifth woman who is, perhaps, the most remarkable. The fifth woman is no less than the daughter of the Pharaoh. The fifth woman pulls Moses from the Nile. She knows full well that he is a Hebrew. She does it anyway.
She gives him his very name. Moses. In Hebrew, Moshe. “Pulled out of the drink.”
Saved from the depths. The depths of the Nile. And the depths of despair and hopelessness and hate.
At the dawn of our new American era – an era of lies and bluster, of threats of family displacement and dispersion, a time of cruelty and bigotry and peril – how fitting that the main locus of resistance will be in coordinated “women’s marches” throughout the country. Like the women of power and principle that surround and safeguard Moses, it is women who are leading the way toward liberation from Pharaoh.
And in doing so, they bring forth the brilliant light of redemption exemplified in the chutzpah of Pharaoh’s daughter. For – of course – Pharaoh’s daughter had every reason to leave Moses to die. She was a woman of privilege. The Hebrew baby she saved, in contrast, was a marked target, a ghost hovering over the face of the water. Pharaoh’s daughter occupied the very palace of Pharaoh’s racist regime. Moses was the target of that regime.
In such a world, everyone has a place and a role. The powerful are to wield power, and the powerless are to submit to it. While the victim loses his safety and dignity, the perpetrator loses her humanity, degrading the spirit within her by treating the marginalized as less than.
So it is in the act of reaching into the Nile and saving Moses that Pharaoh’s daughter reaches inside herself and saves her own soul. She reclaims the right of the marginalized Moses to live. And, in doing so, she reveals the power and glory within the heart of a human being who refuses to acquiesce to bigotry.
The rise of Donald Trump to the presidency is a profoundly degrading national moment. Like Pharaoh before him, his demonization of the marginalized challenges our very decency as a nation. His abusive language debases all of us. Neither pyramids nor skyscrapers, no matter how tall, can mask the ugliness of a regime built on mockery and brutality.
Our current hour of crisis calls for moral vision and principled action. It demands that Pharaoh’s daughter step forward. To liberate the babies. To stand in solidarity. To save the soul of a nation.
The morning brings news of a New American Pharaoh. New decrees are being drafted in anticipation. The rivers swell with the bodies of the outcast, the despised, the undocumented, the underpaid.
Will we step forward, approach the shore, reach into the water, rescue the goodness and decency in our land, in our own day, at this moment? And the next?
Rabbi Michael Rothbaumis a Jewish educator, speaker, author, and social justice advocate. He and his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, live in Oakland.