A Mother’s Ferocity

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

There doesn’t appear to be much of a feminine touch in this week’s Parshah of Bo, in the final chapter of the Exodus, as we conclude the Ten Plagues and finally experience the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Once the plagues begin, there is no longer any talk or mention of Yocheved, or Miriam, or Tzipporah, or any of the great female personalities of the time. It is a showdown between Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh, the male leaders of two peoples: the Egyptians, and the nascent Jewish nation.

Except . . . except, the feminine influence is ever-present, isn’t it?

In Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, Moses starts out as the handsome prince of Egypt and heir-apparent to the throne, the son of Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah, and the beloved of the Princess Nefretiri.

Nefretiri, of course, is not a character described in the Torah, in which Moses’ only love interest was his wife Tzipporah. In The Ten Commandments, however, after the ninth of the Ten Plagues, Moses is paid a visit by his old flame. Nefretiri comes with a warning: Pharaoh intends to retaliate against the Hebrews by killing each of their firstborn sons. Moses responds to the warning with anguish — not because he is afraid of Pharaoh’s plans, but because he knows that, by making such a vile threat, Pharaoh has sealed his own fate, and has brought upon himself and his people the tenth and final plague: the Smiting of the Firstborn.

For most viewers, this scene is something of a plot twist. After all, everybody knows that G-d killed the Egyptian firstborn. But, that the final plague and punishment was actually one conceived of by Pharaoh to be inflicted upon the Hebrews, was a novel concept.

How much of this scene is fact, and how much fiction?

According to Midrash, Moses was indeed visited by a woman on the night of the tenth plague: his surrogate mother, Bithiah. Accompanying Pharaoh to Moses’ dwelling, she was dismayed to find Moses eating and drinking. She said: “Is this how you repay me for raising you as my own child — by bringing such evil upon me and my family?” Moses responded: “Have you personally been affected? You are the firstborn to your mother — yet here you are. Pharaoh is the firstborn to his mother — and yet here he is.”[1]

So Moses was indeed visited during the Tenth Plague — but by Bithiah.

But how about the inspiration for the plague itself? Where did that come from?

If one reads the text closely, one will find that the Smiting of the Firstborn was actually the very first promise that G-d made, and one of the very first messages that G-d bade Moses deliver to Pharaoh. Back in Shemot, G-d commanded Moses as follows:

When you go to return to Egypt, see all the signs that I have placed in your hand and perform them before Pharaoh, but I will strengthen his heart, and he will not send out the people.

And you shall say to Pharaoh, “So said the Lord, ‘My firstborn son is Israel.’”

So I say to you, “Send out My son so that he will worship Me, but if you refuse to send him out, behold, I am going to slay your firstborn son.”[2]

Now, I added the emphasis on the word “your,” but that certainly appears to be the import of G-d’s warning: “You have enslaved and persecuted my firstborn son. Now let him go, or I will come after your firstborn son.”

But shouldn’t G-d be more aloof? Shouldn’t He be more detached? Why is He reacting to this so personally? Besides, aren’t the Egyptians His children too?

In considering the harshness of G-d’s ultimatum, what springs to mind is the fierce and uncompromising protectiveness of a mother, responding to a threat to her child. A ferocious lioness, protecting her cubs from all harm.

In fact, when you examine the above Midrash, as well as our discussion here, it is clear that the nature of firstborn status is that the child is firstborn to the mother; the first child to emerge from her womb. G-d claiming the Israelites as his firstborn, and threatening Egypt’s firstborn if they were not freed, was decidedly maternal.

Incidentally, in this week’s Haftorah, when it refers to Egypt, it refers to the “daughter of Egypt” — another female. Thus, G-d’s message to Pharaoh was an ultimatum from one mother to another: Let my firstborn go, or yours will pay the price.

All of this sounds familiar, with echoes of an earlier biblical story.

Approximately 200 years earlier, another mother — a mother of the child who would one day father the Israelite nation — also perceived a threat to her firstborn son. In her case, too, the danger that she sensed emanated from an Egyptian woman and her firstborn son.

I speak, of course, of Sarah and Hagar. Our Matriarch Sarah saw Hagar’s firstborn son, Ishmael, mistreating her firstborn son, Isaac — and she saw red. She immediately demanded that Abraham banish both Hagar and her son; a harsh judgment indeed, given that Hagar was her own maidservant, and Ishmael was her husband’s oldest son. In fact, the Torah reports that Abraham was greatly aggrieved by Sarah’s demands. Why should he banish his son and his mother? Isaac was his son too — but surely steps could be taken to protect him that didn’t involve such harsh measures.

But G-d told Abraham to listen to Sarah. Is that because G-d felt the same way about his future nation? So much of our forefathers’ experiences were microcosmic dramas that would later be played out by the Jewish people on a world stage. Was G-d’s support for Sarah intended to present such an archetypical scene, one that would set the spiritual stage for the Tenth Plague 200 years later?

Regardless, it is evident that the hand guiding the events in this week’s Parshah — that mighty and outstretched arm — was indeed a feminine touch, and reflected a mother’s ferocious protection of her children.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] See Sefer Seder Hadorot, 2447.

[2] Exodus, 4:21-23.