By Bob Rosenthal,
Early on in Parashat Shemot, the Pharaoh of Egypt, fearing that the growing Israelite population presented a potential threat to the Egyptians, declared that all boys born to Hebrew women shall be killed. Some time later, when Moses was born, his mother initially tried to protect him by hiding him, but after three months, she determined that she could not hide him any longer. She then put the infant Moses in a wicker basket and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile, presumably hoping that he would be rescued and raised by an Egyptian. As it turned out, not only was Moses found by an Egyptian, but the one who found him was Pharaoh’s daughter. Despite suspecting that Moses was a Hebrew child, Pharaoh’s daughter allowed him to live and eventually made him her son. (At the clever suggestion of Moses’s sister, Pharaoh’s daughter had Moses’s mother nurse him until he was grown up enough to be brought to Pharaoh’s daughter).
What is striking to me about this part of Parashat Shemot, aside from the horror of this early instance of persecution of the Jewish people, is the choice that Moses’s mother made when confronted with the threat to the survival of her son. There is no surprise that a mother’s love for her child would be so strong that she would take any measures, however desperate, to protect her child from harm. However, is it so obvious that a parent’s love will always lead to a decision that puts the interests of the child ahead of the interests of the parent? Would Moses’s mother clearly have made the “wrong” decision if she had chosen to risk her son’s life in order to have the opportunity to raise him herself and preserve for herself the joys and rewards of being his parent?
Fortunately, in the world that we (the congregation of Temple Shalom) live in today, it would be extremely rare for a parent to face a decision as critical and harrowing as the one that Moses’s mother confronted. But there are still many instances, ranging from the mundane to the very important, when we as parents must decide how to act or at least to advise when the interests of our child may be in conflict with our own interests. Should a parent who places a priority on academic achievement prohibit his daughter from devoting countless hours to playing the flute (at the expense of study time), even though music is the daughter’s passion? Should a parent who cares deeply about the continuity of her Jewish heritage across generations discourage her son from marrying his “one true love” because she is Christian? Should a parent who has saved up for years to afford the car of his dreams sacrifice that purchase because his daughter wants to attend the expensive private school that reportedly provides more personal attention to its students?
Perhaps there is only one “right” answer to these questions. Intellectually, I can understand that it would generally be the responsibility of the parents to place the interests of their child ahead of their own, but in the practical reality of personal emotions and perceptions of knowing what is best for their child, the “right” answer may not be so obvious. (And, of course, there are many circumstances in which it can be argued that the long‑term best interests of the child are different from, and should override, decisions that will bring him or her happiness in the near term.) Does the Torah teach us, through the example of the actions of Moses’s mother, that it is a tenet of our faith that the interests of the child should always take precedence? I am confident that there are Torah scholars who can address that question at great length. For most of us who face these parental decisions, we often wrestle with them endlessly and remain uncertain even after the decisions are made. We do not necessarily look at Moses’s mother as setting a standard to follow, but rather as making an incredibly difficult and courageous decision in a situation that we can hardly fathom.