Where the Jewish people’s enduring faith and optimism comes from



We all know Moses, the liberator, law giver, military hero, greatest of all prophets. We all know his brother Aaron, pursuer of peace, Israel’s first priest, ancestor of all Kohanim. We all know Miriam, their older sister, the prophetess and one of the midwives who defied Pharaoh’s orders to kill all Jewish boys at birth.

And we all know that together these three siblings led the Jews out of Egypt and became the architects of the Jewish nation, as discussed in this week’s Torah reading.

But what’s missing from this picture?

What’s missing is that Moses, Aaron and Miriam had parents, Yocheved and Amram, who managed to raise three of the greatest Jewish leaders in history! Even the founding fathers and mothers of the Jewish people did not achieve what Yocheved and Amram did. Abraham and Sarah had one righteous child and one that was not. Isaac and Rebecca had one righteous child and one that was not. Here we have three winners in one family. It is utterly remarkable.

What was their parenting secret? I have children. I’d like to know, too.

Well, we don’t know anything about how they raised their kids. But we know about the era in which they lived. It was a dark time. The despondency of the Jews at the moment of Amram’s birth is unimaginable; it was during the 200 years of Egyptian slavery, which culminated in Pharaoh’s decree that every newborn male be thrown into the Nile. For Jews to have children in the midst of such despair must have been a supreme act of courage. These three unique children were brought into a world that seemed to argue that they shouldn’t exist at all.

It was at that moment that a couple from the House of Levi gave birth to a son and then gathered people together for his circumcision. They named the baby Am-ram, which means “exalted nation.” Their guests probably questioned the choice of name. “Are you crazy?  We are an oppressed nation. How can you name the child Amram — ‘exalted nation’ — at a time like this?”

Amram’s parents would have responded with a simple question, “Where is your faith? God promised that the Jews would emerge from slavery to receive the Torah and become a great nation. We will be an exalted nation — ‘Am-ram.’ Just wait and see.”

Around the same time (see note), another couple from the House of Levi had a daughter they named Yo-cheved, literally “glory be to God.” Guests at the baby naming probably said, “Are you out of your minds? ‘Glory be to God?’ They are killing us!” And Yocheved’s parents would have responded, “Where is your faith? There is a divine promise and we will emerge victorious.”

We don’t know much about Amram and Yocheved, the parents of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. But their names tell us a lot about the families they came from, families of courage and optimism that refused to give in to despair. The giving of the names Amram and Yocheved expressed indomitable faith — faith that produced the greatest Jewish children and grandchildren that our people have ever known.

When I think about their courage, I’m reminded of the cartoon about Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The Road Runner is a speedy bird hunted relentlessly by the hungry coyote.

In one episode, the coyote attempts to make a meal of the Road Runner (I think he’s kosher). The Road Runner races to the edge of a cliff and hides behind a rock. The coyote, however, is so absorbed in the chase that he doesn’t notice the abyss and runs right off the ledge. He maintains his stride in midair, defying gravity, until it eventually occurs to him that the Road Runner is nowhere in sight. The coyote screeches to a stop and turns, looking back. He sees the Road Runner watching him safely from the edge of the cliff, with a triumphant smile. Slowly, it dawns on him that he is in serious trouble. At that point, he looks down, and only then does he fall, landing in a painful heap at the bottom of the canyon.

Why does the coyote fall?

Because he looked down. Like the coyote, Amram and Yocheved and the Jews have often found ourselves with the ground pulled out from beneath us. For 2,000 years, our ancestors were scattered and often persecuted. They had no land to call their own, no government, no military. But they did not fall, because they never gave up.

We transcended the deterministic view of reality and so continue to walk on air. We moved through history whenever law said we should have fallen into obscurity.

Moses’ grandparents passed their faith to their family in a singularly dark time; so, now in this time of freedom, we should do no less. We must share the faith and optimism that have seen us through so much with our children.

Note: Rashi says that Yocheved was born as they passed between the walls at the entrance to Egypt. But she was conceived in Israel. However, both Ibn Ezra and Rashbam disagree with Rashi. They say that Yocheved was born much later. Ibn Ezra argues that, if Yocheved was born when they first came to Egypt, she would have been 130 when she gave birth to Moshe. If this was so, he argues, the Torah would have made note of the miracle.