וְלֹא־יָכְלָ֣ה עוֹד֮ הַצְּפִינוֹ֒ וַתִּֽקַּֽח־לוֹ֙ תֵּ֣בַת גֹּ֔מֶא וַתַּחְמְרָ֥ה בַחֵמָ֖ר וּבַזָּ֑פֶת וַתָּ֤שֶׂם בָּהּ֙ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד וַתָּ֥שֶׂם בַּסּ֖וּף עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיְאֹֽר׃
When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. (Exodus 2:3)
The story of Moses’ mother who hid him in a floating box among the reeds of the Nile river with his sister keeping watch to see what will happen leaves us with so many questions. But reading it this year the description of the box as a tevat gomeh – a seemingly inadequate and vulnerable woven box which was waterproofed with bitumen, struck me anew.
The only other place in bible where this word “tevah” appears is in the story of Noah’s floating vessel, when God tells him that the earth is to be destroyed, and Noah must
“עֲשֵׂ֤ה לְךָ֙ תֵּבַ֣ת עֲצֵי־גֹ֔פֶר קִנִּ֖ים תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֶת־הַתֵּבָ֑ה וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר׃
Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch.” (Genesis 6:14)
My mind – as I am sure the minds of so many of us do – flies to the pictures all over the media of the small boats, often overfull with asylum seekers who are making dangerous journeys to safety. The reach Europe, or to reach the UK, they must cross the often treacherous waters, which in the case of the English Channel means both freezing seas, choppy waves and the busiest shipping lanes that they must avoid.
The connection between the tarred box that Moses’ mother makes, and the one made by Noah is not unnoticed among our traditional commentators. They notice that in both cases those within the tevah are saved from drowning; those who are not so lucky – the animals and people not chosen by Noah, or the baby boys of the Hebrews cast into the Nile at birth – will not survive. In both cases the tevah is the means of survival – in the story of Noah it is the whole of the animal kingdom which is given a chance of survival through the representatives protected on the Ark, and in the story of Moses it is the Jewish people who are given a chance of survival through the later actions of the tiny baby preserved within the basket.
At the point of the story where the birth and saving of the infant Moses is told, everyone is nameless. A certain man from the tribe of Levi marries a woman from that same tribe and she conceives and bears a son. She hid him for three months and then, when hiding was no longer an option, puts the child in the waterproofed basket amongst the reeds and sets his sister to watch. A female relative of the Pharaoh approaches and sees the basket, sends a slave to fetch it, opens it and realises this is a Hebrew child, at which point the watching sister shows herself and offers to provide a Hebrew wetnurse – the mother of the baby. The “wetnurse” takes the baby home under the protection of the daughter of Pharoah and nurtures him, bringing him back only when he is grown. And only then – only then in a sidra called “names” – do we get a name for anyone in the story. Pharaoh’s daughter says “His name is Moshe, because I drew him from the waters” (Exodus 2:10) (the verbal root m.sh.h meaning to draw out) שְׁמוֹ֙ מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַתֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֥י מִן־הַמַּ֖יִם מְשִׁיתִֽהוּ׃
The namelessness of all the protagonists feels deliberate and important. These are not special people born to the task of saving an oppressed and vulnerable group, it is only the circumstances they find themselves in – and how they respond to those circumstances – that makes them of particular interest to us. They are, however, all of them representing a special quality that should give us pause – they are all, whether powerful or powerless, old or young, active or passive in the story – they are all human beings.
Reading this story in a world in which our politicians feel comfortable suggesting that the human beings seeking refuge and security in countries far from their own homes should be “turned around at sea”. People in dangerous small craft, often unseaworthy at the best of times of frequently overloaded and in poor conditions, become weaponised in an increasingly hostile environment as our politicians pander to the racism and xenophobia of a vocal minority of people.
In November a group of fisherman tried to block a RNLI lifeboat from rescuing a group of migrants in danger on the sea : https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fishermen-rnli-crew-migrants-rescue-hastings-b1966959.html
Once we know the names and the stories of those who take to these boats as the only way to reach safety we cannot be as indifferent or as hostile as we are encouraged to be by sections of the media and government.
Read the stories and weep – human beings merely seeking safety, risking everything because there was no alternative, read and think of Moses in his basket, his anxious mother, his watching sister, everyone just hoping that they would encounter kindness rather than hostility.
Read about those who died recently – read their stories and learn their names and the names of those who loved them. On parashat Shemot, the least we can do is to understand the humanity of even the nameless, and do our best to tell their stories and let their names not be erased.
picture of Khazal Ahmed, right, with her son Mubin Rezgar, older daughter Hadia Rezgar and younger daughter Hasti Rezgar, who all died in the Channel crossing November 2021