Early childhood education

Jewish Family Identity Forum – Children of the Bible series

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Candace R. Kwiatek

Spanning an entire lifetime, as described in four of the five books of the Torah, Moses’ memory album captures his awe at the burning bush, his bold approaches to Pharaoh, and his glowing countenance at Sinai, along with a multitude of wilderness adventures.

But, unlike most family albums, there are few snapshots of Moses childhood. In fact, only 10 verses are devoted to his early years.

He bursts forth in his first independent scene: “…when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12).”

Clearly, he identifies with the Israelites. He rejects the conventional master-slave relationship. He defies the law of the land. God-fearing, compassionate, loyal, courageous, and unconventional: How did Moses become Moses?

“Now there arose a new Pharaoh over Egypt who knew not Joseph,” Exodus famously pronounces. To prevent his land from being overthrown, this new leader eventually commanded the midwives, Shifrah and Puah, to kill all the Hebrews’ newborn boys.

Fearing God, the midwives defied Pharaoh and spared the babies.

Imagine the story told to the young Moses as he gazed at the portraits of Shifrah and Puah in his album. What messages would he have absorbed?  Stand up for what is right and good. Fear God above all, even kings. Defy those who would say or do evil.

What “portraits” are our youngsters gazing at?  Are children today getting these messages?

One of the first photos in a baby album is the pregnant couple — baby bump in clear profile. This is the page I imagine as I read the first verses of chapter two: “And there went a man (ish) of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman (isha) conceived and bore a son…”

It’s a photo of courage personified: Moses’ parents flout Pharaoh’s edict of death and celebrate the creation of life. His mother further rebels against the law by saving the baby Moses in a basket on the river. Imagine the values of life and courage the young Moses absorbed as he heard his story.  What values are our youngsters absorbing today?

But there’s another message in the caption. The commentators ask why the text doesn’t name Moses’ parents until much later, referring to them here only as ish and isha?

“In other instances,” writes Rabbi Levi Meier in Moses: The Prince, the Prophet, “ish and isha describe angels or individuals who are sent on a special, Divine mission to help fulfill a particular destiny.”

This ish and isha were uniquely destined to be the parents of Moses. But how was their mission different from that of any parents, all of whom are partners with God in a quest to help their children fulfill their own destinies?

Meier writes that according to Maimonides, every newborn child can be regarded as a potential hero, a potential savior of humanity at some time to come. What a powerful message to parents and children alike. Are we giving our children a sense of Divine mission?

Perhaps the most striking album entry is the group portrait of Pharaoh’s daughter surrounded by her maidens.  She exhibits compassion for the crying Hebrew infant in the river-borne basket and then deliberately defies her father’s royal decree, personally rescuing the baby.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in Covenant & Conversation: Exodus, her involvement doesn’t end there; she later adopts him and raises him in Pharaoh’s own court.

She is rewarded twice, Sacks continues: she is named Batya, meaning the daughter of God (1 Chronicles 4:18) and gives Moses the only name by which he is known in the entire Torah.

In addition to compassion for the needy and resistance toward evil, Batya’s story teaches that “…we should never make assumptions about people…family, religion, or ethnicity is not as significant as…ethical character,”according to Meier.  Do our children hear the message that character matters?

Turn the page of Moses’ album and you’ll see a double-page spread: older sister Miriam peering out from among the reeds at Moses’ basket floating down the Nile; Miriam challenging convention and approaching Pharaoh’s daughter as an equal; Miriam seizing the opportunity to rescue her brother by arranging for his own mother to be his nurse.

Miriam’s legacy to Moses is twofold: the importance of family at all costs, and the understanding that all people, whether slaves or princesses, are equal in their humanity.  Are we leaving our youngsters this legacy?

While the biblical text suggests that Moses was raised for some time in Pharaoh’s palace, it also suggests that Moses’ early and most formative years were spent with his family.

“Take this child and nurse it for me…When the child grew up, she (Moses’ mother) brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son.”

His character was forged by the stories and examples of his childhood: the God-fearing midwives, his courageous parents and sister, and even the rebel princess. Despite his later years in the palace, the text suggests that his foundational values were not compromised.

“He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about…”  This way: his family was no longer physically there to guide him. And that: his royal peers and society were “no one” to him in terms of influence. So he turned inward, to the values he had absorbed in his early years. And like his forefathers, he made his choice, creating himself and forging a nation.

Family Discussion: In The Bedside Torah, Rabbi Bradley Artson writes that the list of names opening the Book of Exodus is a reminder and a challenge to think about those people who have had an effect on who you are today. What are your foundational values, and when and how did you acquire them? Ask your children or grandchildren: what do they say?


Literature to share

If you lived here, you’d be home now by Claire LaZebnik:  This drama/romance is a lighthearted, easy adult read.  Clever dialogue and fast-paced scenes feature the tough-as-nails Rickie, a high school dropout who learns the hard way about parenting, fitting in, and growing up.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman: If you’ve ever wondered why people make seemingly bizarre decisions — like paying $204 for a $20 bill, saying an obvious falsehood is true, or staying in an unhealthy relationship — then Sway is the book for you. Filled with anecdotes that illustrate different modes of decision-making, this short study is engaging and thought provoking; and it just may change the way you think.

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