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Righteous Gentiles

Exodus 6:2–9:35

Not long ago my niece Shira sent me some comments on the weekly portion in which Moses was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter. She compared the historical events with the life stories of her two grandmothers, who had died at the end of a long, full life after first experiencing a childhood of terror and persecution, from which they were saved by non-Jewish neighbors. Here is what she wrote: “I choose to be an optimist, and following the life experiences of my two grandmothers, to believe in people like Olga and Mikolai, like Umm and Abu Shaker, like Pharaoh’s daughter, who made the right choice. Because of them I stand here today. Because of people like them, because of personal friendships that break down walls, life has a chance, and maybe even coexistence.”

Here is how my beloved father-in-law Lucien answered her: “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch made a contribution to our Shira’s method of commentary…. ‘Pharaoh’s daughter called her foster son Moshe, one who draws out of the water, and not Mashui, one who is drawn from the water. Perhaps this gives us an indication of the whole tendency of the education which the princess gave her foster son…that all his life is he to have a tender heart for other people’s troubles and always be on the alert to be a moshi’a, a deliverer in times of distress. His Hebrew name always kept the consciousness of his origin awake within him. The princess surely inquired of the mother the Hebrew term for expressing this thought, otherwise she would have given him an Egyptian name. In all this we can see the noble humane character of Moses’s savior” (Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exod. 2:10).

Not long ago the entire government of France cited an initiative begun by my father-in-law. At the Pantheon, the most important memorial site in Paris, a grave was dedicated for the “unknown righteous gentile.” (You may not know, by the way, that Israel has recognized more than twenty-one thousand righteous gentiles to date, among whom the entire Danish underground is counted as one person, and the entire Danish people as a subset of this.) Both their comments, my father-in-law’s and my niece’s, open a window for us to discuss the very fine but clear line threading through the story of the Exodus, namely the story of the righteous gentiles.

The first to follow this path were the midwives. True, the scripture explicitly calls them “Hebrew midwives” (Exod. 1:15). But the traditional commentaries on the words “Hebrew midwives” question whether they were indeed “Hebrews” of the seed of Israel or Egyptian midwives whose occupation was helping to deliver the children of Hebrew women. The nineteenth century Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto summed up the dilemma as follows: “It was the opinion of the sages of the Talmud that these midwives were from the seed of Israel. And [other] opinions held that they were Egyptians who delivered Hebrew children, which seems likely. For how could he have ordered the daughters of Israel to destroy their own people and believe they would obey?” (Samuel David Luzzatto on Exod. 1). Let’s go with Luzzatto’s argument. If that is the case, then Shiphrah and Puah were the first righteous gentiles, Egyptian women who dared to defy the tyrant and remain in memory for all time.

Pharaoh’s daughter is unquestionably another righteous soul of humanity. We have no reason to doubt her origins and background. She is the daughter of Pharaoh. And out of the midst of Pharaoh’s house she brings her kindness to Moses, child of the Nile. This narrative idea of a sensitive human king or prince who goes out to the people and their suffering reappears in various forms in the Bible, as it does in the literatures of all peoples. This is precisely the role of Esther in the house of King Ahasuerus. Much the same could be said of the efforts of King David’s son Absalom to capture the hearts and minds of the people (2 Sam. 15:6) as a popular, populist prince from the heart of the royal establishment.

Thank God the Egypt of our story is more than these three heroic women. That narrow thread of righteousness and human justice stretched across the whole of Egyptian society, even though the stories of these heroes remain mostly hidden. When Israel leaves Egypt in the portion we will read two weeks from now, there will be a mass parting of nation from nation and people from people. Some of these farewells will be harsh. Worker will take revenge on taskmaster, slave on oppressor, serving girl on mistress. But some of the farewells inevitably were emotional. Not for nothing was the day of parting described this way: “‘Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.’ And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians” (Exod. 11:2–3). There were friendships between Egyptians and Israelites. The Egyptians felt a need to compensate their departing neighbors, or perhaps simply to outfit them for their journey out of Egypt. (Later on, in the next chapter, it turns out that some Israelites exploited the opportunity, overreached and abused the Egyptians’ good will: “And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians” [Exod. 12:36].)

Even before the great Exodus, however, came the lesser exodus. Moses left Egypt, fleeing Pharaoh’s anger after beating an Egyptian man to death and nearly doing the same to a Hebrew man (Exod. 2:14). He arrived as a stranger at the well in Midian and found refuge in the home of the high priest Jethro, who gave Moses his daughter Zipporah as a wife. This is the same Jethro who came into the desert to unite the families and showed kindness to Israel, his kinsman’s people. He too is a righteous gentile who crowned our earliest mythology with his daughter Zipporah, the wife of Moses and mother of his children.

My late mother’s Bible teacher, the commentator Nechama Leibowitz, called our attention to the fact that wherever the concept of “fear of God” is mentioned, it has to do with non-Jews: “But the midwives feared God” (Exod. 1:17); Amalek “feared not God” (Deut. 25:18) and elsewhere. The practical expression of fear (or lack thereof) of God is always in treatment of the stranger, the Other, the weak and helpless. “The fear of God in the Bible is a demand required of every human created in the divine image…and if there is no fear of God in his heart, in the heart of the gentile, he is considered as though he had betrayed all of his obligations…. In all those places ‘fear of God’ is expressed in one’s behavior toward a member of another people, toward a member of a minority. For this treatment of the stranger, the powerless and the unprotected is the acid test – whether there is fear of God in the heart or not” (Nechama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot, 33). The biblical God-fearer is the ancient brother of the modern righteous gentile, and those who do not fear God will often turn out to be perpetrators of crimes against humanity in general and against our people’s humanity in particular.

Thus, for example, when Abraham deceives Abimelech, king of Gerar, and presents his wife Sarah as his sister, Abimelech rebukes him: “What sawest thou, that thou hast done this thing?” (Gen. 20:10). And Abraham responds defensively, “Because I thought: Surely the fear of God is not in his place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake” (Gen. 20:11). To which Rashi, imaginative as always, offers the following Midrash: “Will a guest who comes to town be asked about food and drink or will he be asked about his wife? Is she your wife or your sister?” In other words, Abraham doesn’t know whether the local people are kind, hospitable people who will accept him and his family as they are, or are they not righteous gentiles, God forbid, and will they ask him about his wife and molest her and him? Or will they perhaps even try to borrow her for a night or two? And so he lies, showing the stranger’s fear of local bullies and bosses. He actually abandons his wife to their devices and proves to us in yet another way that fear of God and treatment of the stranger are inextricably bound together in the ancient biblical world.

It’s said that medals are handed out only in places where the system has broken down, stopped functioning and no longer does what it is supposed to do. By that logic, righteous gentiles are the alternative to human evil, winners of the medal of hope for a better world that may yet learn to conquer humanity’s worst instincts. Everywhere that the rule of law, order, fairness and the sanctity of human life collapse, a struggle must break out between the spreading evil and the human goodness that rescues children and risks its life for the persecuted, the raped and the helpless. The torch of darkness is fated to flicker and die, but if there is not even a small human light there, how can the flame of humanity burn again?

The lessons of human tragedy, whether great or small, cannot be reduced to a mere cry for more power, so as not to encounter another Amalek, Sennacherib or Hitler. There must also be a search for the good Amalek, the good Samarian, and the good German; with them we can repair the world again and make it even better. Too many have taken the oath of “never again,” intending that this should never happen to us again. They are so focused on themselves, on the Jewish people and Jewish history, that they have never noticed the lessons of the biblical stories of Egyptian bondage and liberation: that it should never again happen to anyone. This is the legacy of the Egyptian midwives. This is the teaching of Pharaoh’s daughter. These are our orders from the God-fearers, rebels against the kingdom and the lovers of mankind from among Pharaoh’s slaves. And let’s spell it out again: fear of God was not intended as religious extremism, but as a balance and restraint against unbounded human tyranny.

There is one more benefit to the unending search for the righteous gentiles who save the light of the world. They always ask us by their very existence: are there enough righteous persons among you who preserve the flame of goodness and humanity by your treatment of the stranger and the Other? They oblige us to confront ourselves honestly and answer the question of whether our enemies can look at us and tell themselves that we are not all alike, that we are not pure evil. Who is the Israeli Schindler or the Jewish Wallenberg of our generation? Who is the daughter of Pharaoh who will draw an enemy from the water and make him into a prince of his people’s freedom and the world’s?

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