Rabbi David Segal Aspen Jewish Congregation January 20, 2017 • Parshat Shemot
“She gave birth to a son, and she saw that he was good.” (Exodus 2:2)
It is almost a throwaway moment. What mother doesn’t see her newborn as good? So Moses’s mother was fond of him. It seems unremarkable. Except — it’s the same language as in Genesis 1:4 when God looks at light, that first creation, and sees that it is good.
Naturally, the Rabbis noticed this parallel, this elevation of Moses’s mother Yocheved to God the Creator, of Moses’s birth to the creation of the world. Rashi, quoting the Talmud (Sota 12a), says that when Moses was born, the house was filled with light. Was it the light of creation, of new possibility?
Was it the light of prophecy? Miriam is called “Aaron’s sister, the prophetess” (Exod. 15:20) — meaning she must have had the gift of prophecy already before Moses was born, when she was only Aaron’s sister. Ramban explains: “Miriam prophesied that her mother would bear a son who would save Israel.” And so when Moses was born, the Torah says that his mother va-terei oto ki tov hu — she saw that he was good in some special way. “She thought,” says Ramban, “that a miracle might be done for him, and he would be saved [from Pharaoh’s decree against male Hebrews]. So she set her mind to devise a plan.”
Maybe it was a special light she saw at his birth; maybe it was Miriam’s prophecy that convinced her to hope, to see God’s light in the darkness of Egypt. But notice what she does: she plans! This is not passive hope for deliverance from some unknown source. This is active hope that works faithfully for the future it envisions. And so Yocheved makes for Moses a little ark and sets him in the Nile’s reeds. And so she sends Miriam to watch over him. And so he is saved by Pharaoh’s daughter. And so Moses’s own mother is called to nurse him. And so he leads our people to freedom.
God, too, had hope and a plan. Genesis 1:4: “God saw the light, that it was good, and separated it…” A midrash says that God saw the light, that it was for the good, and then set it aside (Book of Legends 9:23; BT Hagiga 12a; Ber. Rab. 3:6; Shemot Rab. 35:1). Why? Because in that first light, God saw from one end of eternity to the other. “But as soon as God saw the generation of the flood and the dispersion of mankind (Babel), and saw that their conduct was to be depraved, God proceeded to hide His light from them. And for whom did God hide it? For the righteous….”
God created the universe for good, and saw that it was so, from the creation of light to the creation of humanity. But God also saw that creation could slip into darkness, that we could twist it for depraved purposes, that we could abuse what God intended for the good. So God, like Moses’s mother, held on to hope and devised a plan. As Psalm 97:11 says — and we sang earlier tonight — or zarua latzadik ul’yishrei lev simchah / “light is sown for the righteous, radiance for the upright.” I think that verse explains God’s plan.
The midrash said God hid the light; the Psalmist says God planted it. Maybe they’re not so different. Planting a seed, after all, is an act of hope that requires a plan — watering, tending, tilling, and such.
And where does God plant this seed of light? LaTzadik, says the Psalm — usually translated “for the righteous,” but some commentators say “into the righteous.” The mystics teach that divine sparks scattered at the time of creation and implanted in all things, in all of us. They say we are all bearers of God’s light. We are all the tzadik, at least with the potential to be righteous — when we cultivate that inner light.
For Yocheved, the seed of light was planted in her in the form of a child. This baby boy brought hope and light to a dark time. His birth was a new beginning.
A few months ago at a rally of interfaith clergy, Sikh leader Valarie Kaur offered this prayer for when we face darkness as a country:
What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia [and anti-Semitism], political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: “You are brave”? What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future? Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”
That is how you give birth — to a child, or to the future. Breath with hope; push with a plan.
Every child brings renewed hope. Every breath brings a chance to be a harvester of light. Even when things are bad, let us try like God to see what is still very good. Let us be like Yocheved and Miriam, who saw light in the darkest place and brought it to life.
Let us be what Jews have always been: people of hope, and people who plan.