As ספר שמות begins, we read of the rise of a new Pharoah and the terrible decrees that he puts on the Jewish People after winning the support of his people through fear mongering. First, come the crippling taxes, then outright slavery. And, finally, Pharoah sinks to the desperate low of infanticide, in the hope of curbing the Jews’ fast-growing population, initially through midwives, and eventually calling on every Egyptian to kill any Jewish baby boy that they see.
Amid all of this, the national story of Egyptian subjugation is put on pause as we learn of a more personal love story; a Levite man takes a daughter of Levi, and they have a baby. We know this baby to be Moshe, the future savior of the Jewish People, but, until we read of Pharoah’s daughter saving that child, very little details are mentioned in the text. With the help of the מפרשים, we begin to fill in the finer details, finding out that the proud parents were actually Amram and Yocheved, and the sister who watched from afar Miriam, but little else is known.
As a matter of fact, these few פשט details lead to more questions: If the man from בית לוי (Amram), “took” the daughter of Levi (Yocheved), and they have a baby right away, how could they have an older daughter who was able to watch the baby as he sailed through the Nile River? Why do the parents’ names need to be kept secret in the פסוקים? The questions go on and on…
In the face of the vagueness in the story, and lack of detail in the straightforward פשט explanation of the פרק which tells of the birth of our leader Moshe, we are forced to do something that I am usually very hesitant to even consider: investigate a deeper, less text-based, approach from the Midrash. Luckily, the מדרש שמות רבה has an entire backstory to explain these פסוקים:
…כיון שגזר פרעה ואמר (שמות א כב) “כל הבן הילוד” אמר עמרם ולריק ישראל מולידים מיד הוציא את יוכבד ופרש עצמו מתשמיש המטה וגרש את אשתו כשהיא מעוברת משלשה חודשים, עמדו כל ישראל וגרשו את נשותיהן אמרה לו בתו גזרתך קשה משל פרעה שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ואתה על הזכרים ונקבות … עמד הוא והחזיר את אשתו עמדו כל ישראל והחזירו את נשותיהם…
When Pharoah decreed “every son who is born [shall be thrown into the Nile…]” (Shemot 1:22), Amram said; is it for naught that the Jews are having children? He immediately separated himself from having intimacy with Yocheved, and divorced her when she was three months pregnant. The rest of Israel also divorced their wives. His daughter (Miriam) said to him: Your decree is worse than that of Pharoah, for Pharoah’s is only against baby boys, but yours is against all Jewish babies… [upon hearing this, Amram] got up and returned to his wife, and all of the Jews got up and returned to their wives… (שמות רבה א:יג)
According to the Midrash, Amram and Yocheved, having seen the pain that the Jews felt at giving birth, only to have the Egyptians murder their baby boys, decided that the best way to fight was to disengage, to stop having children until the decree went away. Being a prominent couple in the community, others readily followed their example, and before long, all of the Jews had separated from their spouses, and there were no more children for the Egyptians to kill. But… there were no Jewish children at all. By trying to stop Pharoah’s decree in this way, Amram and Yocheved were effectively giving him exactly what he wanted- thanks to them, there were no more Jewish children.
So, Mirriam stepped up and told her father the truth that he needed to hear- “גזרתך קשה משל פרעה– you’re killing more Jewish babies than Pharoah ever could.” Pharoah was only killing baby boys, and as we saw from the end of the previous פרק, he was not entirely successful even at this. Amram was effectively killing every single Jewish child, regardless of gender, by influencing the people to not procreate. Amram, realizing the truth of his daughter’s words, retook his wife as we see in the beginning of this פרק, and thus the Jews’ salvation from Egypt began.
The Maharam of Shik, a close student of the Chatam Sofer, explains this deep מדרש on an even deeper level:
דהנה הקדוש ברוך הוא כרת ברית עם אבותינו לקיים זרעם אחריהם, ולתת להם נחלת ארץ ישראל. והנה, אם ישראל יגזרו על עצמם שלא להוליד בנים, ודור הולך ואין דור אחר בא, ויש לחוש שחס ושלום יכלה זרעו של אברהם אבינו- יהיה מוכרח השם יתברך תיכף להושיע את ישראל ולהשיב בנים לגבולם (כיון שלא יהיה דור אחר אחריהם ויכלה זרעו של אברהם אבינו, ולא יהיה להשם יתברך במי לקיים בריתו שכרת עם האבות. ועל פי זה, תהיה הישועה תיכף) (שו”ת מהר”ם שיק אורח חיים ע)
According to Maharam, Amram’s plan was not the thoughtless, knee-jerk response to infanticide as the Midrash presents it. Rather, there was a deeper plan: Amram knew that G-d had promised that he would redeem the descendants of Avraham Avinu and bring them back to Eretz Yisrael- he thought that if the Jews would stop having children, and there would be no “זרע אברהם” in the next generation, then the G-d would be “forced” to redeem the Jews right away, saving them from their current terrible predicament.
Unfortunately, as Miriam began to understand, this plan seems to have backfired, as only the righteous Jews followed Amram’s example and separated from their wives. The less righteous ones, however, didn’t, so there would in fact be a next generation of “זרע אברהם,” just not one that would even come close to meriting redemption from Egypt. For this reason, Miriam confronted her father and said “גזרתך קשה משל פרעה“- at least, under Pharoah’s decree, the next generations would have a better chance of being redeemed by G-d, for there would be many more righteous Jews. Under Amram’s “decree,” there would only be wicked Jews, without any hope of ever being saved by G-d. In the merit of Miriam’s harsh but necessary words, Amram and Yocheved reunited, and Moshe was born, thus beginning the same salvation that Amram nearly prevented from ever happening.
In his landmark Religious Zionist work אם הבנים שמחה, Rav Yissachar Teichtel quotes this teaching and expands on the Maharam’s words. There (פרק ג, אות יב), he writes that sometimes the Jews can be presented with difficult, even painful challenges for doing מצות (like פרו ורבו in our sedrah). But, if they stop getting involved in the מצוה because of this, if they lose their אמונה in their fear of the repercussions of the commandment, then the result can leave the world a worse place- for only the רשעים will remain. The G-d fearing Jews must persevere, and keep their faith in G-d, in order to keep the world in balance between רשעים and צדיקים.
Rav Teichtel continues:
וכמו כן הוא בנידון בנין ארצנו הקדושה. דמאז שהתעוררה התנועה הזאת, היראים וחרדים סלקו עצמם מזה והתנגדו לזה, וקלי הדעת לקחו הדבר בידם, והתאמצו יותר ויותר להשיג מטרתם במעשה הבנין
This is very similar to the situation with rebuilding Artzeinu Hakedosha. Ever since this movement (Zionism) was awoken, the “G-d-fearers” and “Haredim” separated themselves from it and fiercely opposed it, leaving those of “lighter intent” to fill their place and take the initiative, working hard to fulfill their goal of rebuilding (Eretz Yisrael).
וחפץ ה’ הצליח בידם, טרחו ועמלו עד שעשו חיל. וכיון שהיראים עמדו והתייצבו הלאה מכל הפעולה, אם כן מה חידוש הוא שהבנין נעשה ברוח חפשית?
But, G-d willed them to succeed, and they worked hard until their efforts bore fruit. And now, since the “G-d fearers” stood on the side, and opposed taking any part in the movement, is it any surprise that the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael is secular?
ובטוח הדבר, שאלמלי היינו כולנו משותפים בפעולה הזאת תיכף מתחילה, היתה שוררת שם רוח התורה ורוח היראה במדה גדולה. וממילא, עתה כשכבר יש ישוב נאה, והוא פועל יוצא ממעשי קלי הדעת- הם הם אדוני הארץ, כי הוא פרי מעלליהם.
I am certain that if everyone would have joined together in this effort from the beginning, there would have been a great influence of Torah and fear of G-d in a much greater degree. However, now that there is already a beautiful settlement, built by those of “lighter intent”- they are rulers of the land, and it is their brainchild, the fruit of their efforts. (אם הבנים שמחה ג:יב- דף קעה)
Rav Teichtel writes that this same principle applies to Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael as well. In Europe, when faced with the decision of joining forces with secular Jews to create a Jewish State in Israel, the “חרדים,” so afraid of the “קלי דעת,” decided not to get involved. Their thought process was very much the same as Amram’s- better not to have children, then to give birth to them only for them to die (become influenced by secular culture in a Jewish state). Unfortunately, the Haredi leaders of Europe didn’t have a Miriam to give them a warning before it was too late, but years later, individuals began to realize that no words were ever truer than “גזרתך קשה משל פרעה.” Through their self-imposed separation from Zionism, the Haredi world sealed their own fate by ensuring that the Jewish State would be secular, and nearly a century later, they are very much paying the price of their leaders’ wrong decision. The State of Israel, founded by those with more אמונה than the “יראים,” is truly exceeding everyone’s’ wildest expectations, but it is truly a secular state. Yet, even now, there are many who refuse to move there on ideological grounds, preferring to stay in a gentile state instead of moving to the so-called “מדינה של גוים.”
These Jews must heed the words of Miriam the prophetess: “גזרתך קשה משל פרעה.”
They see a secular state as being the worst thing in the world, and this encourages them to stop doing of the all-important commandment of ישוב הארץ, one which the Ramban believes to be as important as all of the other ones combined. They must remember what Miriam told Amram in the face of his terrible decree; taking part in the מצוה of ישוב הארץ, despite the perceived personal risk, at least gives a chance of leading a meaningful life in Israel. But, stubbornly refusing to take part in the מצוה, removes any chance of living there. It’s time to exceed the levels of אמונה of non-religious Jews, abandon the גזרה, and embrace the risks and advantages of a fulfilling life in Eretz Yisrael.