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Torah Portion

Home > Torah Portion > Hayim

Torat Hayim
Sh'mot, Exodus 1:1- 6:1
Shabbat January 20, 2001 / 25 Tevet 5761
by Pamela Wax

"When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket [tevat gomeh] for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds [suf] by the bank of the Nile." (Exodus 2:3)

The image in Parashat Sh'mot comes readily to mind: a basket, a baby, bulrushes. My own earliest Jewish memory is coloring a mimeograph of the baby Moses, buoyed in his ark among the reeds of the River Nile.

The metaphor of the bulrushes compels me. Bulrushes are permeable and movable, flexible yet hardy-grounded with strong roots that cannot be easily swept away by river floods. Unlike walls that must be broken down or equipped with portals for passage, bulrushes give way and make room once you trust yourself to enter them. You can hide among them, unseen. According to Sforno, Yocheved chose a reedy spot to hide her son because "the passersby would not be likely to observe her when she placed the basket there."

Bulrushes: What an apt metaphor for a man whose true identity is hidden even from himself, who straddles two worlds-the Egyptian and the Israelite. No impermeable wall separates one culture from the other: Assimilation is so easy. Pharaoh's daughter, representing "otherness," is glimpsed through the willowy rushes, just beyond the bend.

This eerie evocativeness of bulrushes aptly describes our enigmatic prophet. He is, after all, a masked man, literally and figuratively. Not only does the traditional Passover haggadah render Moses invisible and not only does the unknown site of his grave insure that he will not be deified after death, but in his last forty years of life, Moses must hide his radiant face behind a veil so that the Israelites are not frightened by the divine light that emanates from him. He is a master of camouflage from birth and even after death.

With what meaning did Moses imbue those bulrushes, that temporary womb of his infancy? What, in effect, is the difference between the "river of reeds" into which he was thrust for safekeeping and the Sea of Reeds that he later crossed?

According to Sh'mot Rabbah 1:21, Yocheved put Moses directly in the Sea of Reeds "because the Sea of Reeds reaches as far as the Nile." This verse about baby Moses being placed in the suf of the Nile cleverly foreshadows the crossing of the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds.

Bulrushes can, of course, also be dangerous, as witnessed in Jonah 2:6: "The waters closed in over me.... Reeds [suf] twined around my head." For Moses, however, reeds were protective, just as the gourd ultimately was for Jonah. And just like Jonah in the whale and Noah in the tevah, Moses was both vulnerable and divinely protected in his little papyrus ark.

The use of papyrus is ironic for a man who will, tradition tells, write five books on stone, not on the paper invented by his Egyptian countrymen. Would our inherited story of revelation be significantly different were the Ten Commandments written on papyrus rather than on stone?

The Nile's bulrushes and the papyrus reeds from which the ark was crafted have different names in Hebrew but are seemingly interchangeable substances. There is even a third word for "reed" that appears in Ta-anit 20b: R. Simeon ben Eleazar taught, "One should always be soft as a reed [kaneh] and never be unyielding like a cedar tree. And it is because of its softness that the reed was privileged to be used for the making of pens with which Torah scrolls, phylacteries, and mezuzot are written." This attribute of softness was noted, too, by R. Samuel ben Nahman in Sotah 12a, when he said that Yocheved selected reeds rather than wood for the ark because "they are a soft material that can withstand both soft and hard materials," meaning that hard wood might split, whereas reeds have "give."

Biblical commentators have expended much energy on the symbolism of the burning bush, the site of Moses' commission. Far fewer words have been devoted to the significance of the reeds at the beginning of Moses' life. This vacuum leaves space for modern midrash, for us to imagine the role that these plants played in Moses' self-definition and self-conception, as well as our own.


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