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So, a number of years ago, my oldest child was quite young. He came home from kindergarten with a long cardboard cutout arm. I came home and saw this long, disembodied arm. I kind of knew immediately what it was. It comes from the famous comment made by the Midrash that Rashi quotes in this week's Parsha. It's the arm of the daughter of the Pharaoh. When baby Moses was in the bulrushes, along comes the daughter of the Pharaoh, to bathe in the Nile. But vatera et-hatevah betoch hasof. She sees this little box with this little child in it, in the bulrushes. V’tishlach et-amatah vatikacheha. Now, here's where it gets tricky.
The plain and simple meaning texts, she sent her maid servant to go fetch the child. But that's the simple meaning of the texts; not actually how the sages interpret it midrashically. Here's the midrashic interpretation. The word amah is a homonym that has another meaning. The word amah can also mean 'arm'. So, the way that the rabbis read v’tishlach et-amatah vatikacheha is, "Her arm miraculously stretched from the position she was in so that she could reach the child." And that's what my son came home with, with this long cutout.
Midrash sometimes get a bad reputation because people look at it and say, "This stuff is the strangest stuff in the world. I mean, why can't they leave a good, simple story the way it is? I mean, what would have happened if that really have?" Imagine you are the daughter of a Pharaoh. Here you are, you come along the Nile, you see Moses - this little baby; you have compassion upon him. You're a little nervous because he's a Jewish child and you are about to send your maid servant, "Go fetch him." When all of a sudden, your arm just stretches like a fishing rod; you go and grab that child and your arm comes back. What would you do next if you were the daughter of the Pharaoh? I mean, I would run screaming back to the palace, “My arm! My arm! What happened to my arm?” Why is the Rabbi telling you this? What could they possibly mean?
I think the Rabbi is being very sensitive to the new answers of the Biblical text. You always have to read the Midrash in connection to the Biblical text, not divorced to the Biblical text. Reading a Midrash alone is kind of like listening to the harmony of a song without it’s melody. If you ever play piano, you know that the right hand of the piano will carry the melody; the left hand will carry the harmony. So, if you are listening to ‘Old McDonald had a farm’, you’re only listening to the right hand. I sounds like ‘Old Mcdonald had a farm’. But if you are listening to ‘Old McDonald had a farm’ and you only listen to the left hand, it doesn’t sound like anything. It sounds like nonsense.
Well, the simple meaning of the text is kind of like the right hand. It’s the text; it sounds like a story. The Midrash is kind of like harmony; on it’s own, it sounds like nonsense. Put it together with the right hand, and it really sounds like ‘Old McDonald had a farm’. But you have to listen to the melody in a certain way with the harmony.
So, what is the melody of the story? Put yourself into the shoes of that maid servant - the one who is dispatched by the princess to fetch the child. Your number one goal - as lady-in-waiting for the princess - is to look out for the interests of your mistress. Now, look at the scene. Her father, the Pharaoh, has decreed a genocide against this Jewish nation. Little baby boys are being murdered, thrown in the Nile, drowned by the populace. It’s a mass extermination, carried out at all levels of the Egyptian society. Civilians are involved. Its not easy for civilians to drown little kids.
Along comes the daughter of Pharaoh, sees the Jewish child in the distance. See that look in her face? Vatachmol alav, she had compassion on the child. But then, vatomer miyaldei ha’Ivrim zeh, the cognitive part of her brain came in and said, “It’s a Jewish child.” It’s a conflict there! The daughter of the Pharaoh - the princess - had compassion on a child. She makes a decision and fetch you, “Go fetch the child for me.” What’s your job now?
You’ve got to be the one to say ‘no’. “Princess, this is crazy! You can’t defy your father like this. Look who you are!” But what if the daughter of the Pharaoh insisted, “Go fetch the child!” You would say, “Look, your Highness. Let’s be reasonable. We can pass it off to some other mother; we would give him back to some Jewish mother. You don’t have to take this child. It’s a big risk.” She said, “No! I am responsible. I must take care of it. “Fine! Take the child; bring him into the palace. But don’t raise him as a Jew. Tell him who he is.” She says, “No, that wouldn’t be right! He must know who he is. He has to know his heritage. He must know that he is a Jew.”
In fact, Moses does know that he is a Jew. When he grows up, he goes to check on his brothers. How did he now those were his brothers? The daughter of Pharaoh must have told him who he was. Look what she’s trying to do with this child.
I mean, there are certain things that you can do in life; there are certain things that are out of your reach. Out of your reach. Ask yourself this question: when the daughter of Pharaoh saw Moses 30 yards away, was that child in her reach? Or, out of her reach?
You see, from a physical standpoint, obviously, the child is in her reach. Just dispatch your maidservant,have her walk over there and go get the child. But in every way but the physical, that child is completely beyond her reach. What she wants to achieve with that child - to bring that child up as a proud Jew in the palace - is completely beyond her reach. You can’t do that in Pharaoh’s Egypt. You can’t do that if you are the daughter of the Pharaoh. But she sends the maid servant anyway. She reaches for that which is beyond her reach, and her arm reaches. Her arm extends beyond that which could possibly be imagined that she can achieve.
Read the text carefully, with the melody and the harmony together. All of us has things that are in our reach and out of our reach. What the sages seem to be telling us, is that sometimes, when you spot something out of your reach and you reach for it anyway, your arm can stretch. God can help you achieve that dream. Your arm reach, in fact, is larger than you could possibly imagine.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Jacob's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Vayechi: Who is Joseph's Real Father?
13. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
14. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
15. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
16. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
17. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
18. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
19. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
20. Ki Tisa: Epilogue
21. Pekudei: A Giant Chiasm In Sefer Shmot
22. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
23. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
24. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
25. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
26. Metzora: Living Within the Community
27. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
28. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
29. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
30. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
31. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
32. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
33. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
34. Korach: Can We Influence God?
35. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
36. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
37. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
38. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
39. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
40. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
41. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 1/2
42. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 2/2
43. Re'eh: The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
44. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
45. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
46. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
47. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 1/2
48. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 2/2
49. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 1/2
50. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 2/2
51. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
52. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
53. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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