Our legacy may lie in our actions, not our names


Our Torah portion this week is named after Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, who is rewarded with the continued priesthood in his family for zealously upholding the high morals of the Torah.

Soon afterward, war is declared against the Midianites, perennial enemies of the ancient Israelites. Then, another population census is taken. Then, the daughters of Zelophehad declare that even though there are no male heirs in the family (no, this does not mean they were all bald!), they, the daughters, should nevertheless be given the rights of inheritance, which they are ultimately granted.

Then, Moses is reminded that he will not enter the land of Canaan with the other Israelites, and that his righthand man, Joshua, will take over the reins.

Finally, daily and festival sacrificial offerings are reiterated and recalled. And this ends our portion.

Now, hidden within this panoramic narrative of events and happenings is the mention of a wonderful woman who receives scant mention in the Torah. In Exodus 6:20, we read: “And Amram took to him Yocheved, his father’s sister, to wife.” And in this week’s portion, 26:59, we read: “And the name of Amram’s wife was Yocheved, a Levite, and she bore Moses, and Aaron and Miriam.”

Let’s think about this for a moment. Here is a simple woman who gives birth to three children. One of them, Moses, becomes a great leader of the Jewish people, leading them from slavery to freedom, through the Red Sea and across the Sinai wilderness … an incredible accomplishment.

Another child, Miriam, who by her own right is considered a leader of the women in her time, a woman of strength and vigor, is credited with saving baby Moses’ life by risking a conversation with the pharaoh’s daughter at the Nile River.

Wow, two fantastic kids, two great careers, more than any mother could hope for; better than just wishing her children would become doctors and lawyers. But wait, there’s more: Her third child, Aaron, becomes the Israelites’ koen gadol, high priest, and the number-one dude in all temple worship events – a man known to be a chaser of peace and tranquility, the only one holy enough to utter God’s official name on Yom Kippur.

Now, imagine this: Despite all that Yocheved has done, and all that she represented, there are only two mentions of her name in the Torah! One would think that a woman who can produce not one, not two, but three extraordinarily successful individuals would be praised and glorified throughout the Torah. Alas, it ain’t so.

Except for the two verses mentioned earlier, we hear nothing more about Yocheved. Yet, when we closely examine how she came to save her son from the Egyptian decree to give all Jewish male newborns to the Nile god, we get a closer look into her strength and vision.

So, let’s set the scene. Pharoah announces his decree, and Yocheved finds herself with a male baby in her home, with the threat of Egyptian soldiers breaking down her door at any time. What was she to do?

Well, after examining her options, her conclusion is this: place the baby in the Nile and hope that someone kind will find him and care for him.

The Torah could have simply reported something like: “And she put the baby into the ark and sent it on the river.” Period, end of story. However, the Torah uses this event as an opportunity to point out that — wait a minute ­— I have a great story to tell, a chance to recount and to dwell on the wonderful characteristics and traits of an incredible woman.

Only if we examine the story more closely can we begin to understand how the Torah uses action words to show us the kind of person Yocheved was. And when we examine Exodus 2:1-10, here is what we find:

  • And she conceived – a sign of God’s blessing.
  • And she bore a son – a further show of God’s blessing.
  • She saw that her son was godly – she recognized something very special about him.
  • She hid him for three months – she risked her life for the sake of the baby, reflecting faith in God.
  • She could no longer hide him – she could sense that all the faith in the world was not going to help. She was a woman of action, relying on God but not fully dependent on God. She was willing to take matters into her own hands.
  • She took for him an ark of bullrushes – she did this by herself, without telling anyone (except Miriam), so as not to draw attention to what she was doing and perhaps be talked out of it.
  • She daubed it with lime and with pitch – hardly a woman’s work (at least back then), but was not afraid to get her hands dirty to get the job done.
  • She put the child therein – she was right there, placing the baby in the basket, saying goodbye, kissing him for possibly the last time. Again, she was not willing to let someone else complete this most difficult action.
  • She placed it among the reeds of the riverbank – an extreme show of faith and inner strength. By placing the baby in the river by herself, she was taking 100% responsibility for her actions.
  • And she took the child (to nurse it) – imagine the pain of giving up your child, then having the opportunity to take him back for a few years, only to have him taken away again; what a show of strength!
  • And she nursed him – further strengthening the bond that would surely be broken, yet recognizing that this bond would accompany her son into his adult years.
  • And she brought her son to pharaoh’s daughter – by herself, not counting on someone else to do so. She herself handed over the baby, after hugging him for possibly the last time.

Thus, the Torah is able to tell a great story about a great woman – a story told with poignant detail to clearly underscore the pain and stress of the events, and the strength and faith that Yocheved reflected throughout the episode.

The lesson for us all is that more than our names, it is our actions that help define the legacy that we leave to our descendants.

RABBI ETHAN ADLER is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth David, in Narragansett.

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