The "Magic" Arm of Pharaoh's Daughter
How Does Midrash Work?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Welcome the book of Exodus! In this video, we explore the strange midrash in which the arm of Pharaoh's daughter stretched through the river to save Moses.
Why do the Sages tell us such an odd story? Rabbi Fohrman argues that we need to put ourselves into the eyes of Pharaoh's daughter, and help us see that when we want to achieve something, God will help us find a way to do it.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Shmot.
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.
The Midrash of Pharaoh's Daughter Finding Moses
When baby Moses was in the bulrushes, along comes the daughter of the Pharaoh to bathe in the Nile. 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 of the text is, she sent her maidservant 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 – 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 happened? 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 maidservant, "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 are the rabbis telling you this? What could they possibly mean?
How Should We Understand Midrash Shmot?
I think the rabbis are being very sensitive to the nuances of the Biblical text. You always have to read the Midrash in connection to the Biblical text, not divorced from the Biblical text. Reading a Midrash alone is kind of like listening to the harmony of a song without its 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. It 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 its 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?
The Implications of Pharaoh's Daughter Rescuing and Adopting Moses
Put yourself into the shoes of that maidservant – 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 limited 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. It’s 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 kicked 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 to send 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. Never 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 know 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.
The Meaning Behind the Midrash of Pharaoh's Daughter Saving Moses
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 maidservant anyway.
She reaches for that which is beyond her reach, and her arm stretches. 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 have 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’s reach, in fact, is larger than you could possibly imagine.