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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Birthing a Nation

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on December 31, 2015)
Topics: Israel, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Sefer Shemot, Shemot, Torah

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In an extended passage from the book of Yechezkel, the birth of the people of Israel is described through the vivid imagery of actual childbirth:

And as for your birth, in the day you were born your navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water to make you supple … No eye pitied you … to have compassion upon you … but you were cast into the open field … on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you, and saw you polluted in your own blood, I said unto you: Live through your blood; I said unto you: Live through your blood (Yechezkel, 16:4–6).

Part of what makes this image so striking is the graphic, visceral reality of the infant child connected to her mother by the bloody umbilical cord, “polluted” in the blood of childbirth, awaiting that moment when the cord will be cut, the blood will be washed away, and she will begin to become a person unto herself. Along with the implicit mother birthing the child and a midwife to cut the navel and wash the child, birth, blood, and water are the key images of this passage.

These images—birth, blood, water, mother, and midwife—are central to the story of Shemot. The parasha opens with a description of the fecundity of the people: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Shemot, 1:7). The small fetus of a nation had been growing and gestating in the womb of the land of Egypt, but the birth will not be easy. Pharaoh, the father, or perhaps more accurately, the step-father, is afraid of being displaced by the coming child. His first response is to impose slavery on the nation: the beginning of severe and anguishing birth pains. The phrase in Tanakh for birth pains is chevlei leida, travails of childbirth, from the root ch’v’l, meaning rope or bond. In English, we refer to childbirth as labor. These metaphoric bonds and labor find real-world expression in the bonds of slavery and the harsh labor that Pharaoh imposes on the people.

Pharaoh’s next move is an attempt to abort the nation before it is born by killing their infant sons, whom he finds so threatening. Midwives are called in as the agents of infanticide and are told what to do when they see the infant “on the birthing stone,” a hard image reflecting the life of slavery into which these children are being born. The midwives defy Pharaoh’s commands and, when challenged, respond that “the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women; for they are like animals, and before the midwives come to them, they have already given birth” (1:19). Like animals, these women give birth without midwives, not on the birthing stone but—as in the image drawn by Yechezkel—alone, out in the open field.

Pharaoh does not give up. He commands his entire people to cast every newly born male child into the river, and when the fateful birth of Moshe occurs, his mother is forced to place him in a basket in the Nile. When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers him, she takes him from the Nile and names him Moshe, saying, “for I have mishitihu from the water.” The word mishitihu is best understood not as a Hebrew word (why would Pharaoh’s daughter be speaking Hebrew?), but as an Egyptian word meaning ‘the son of’ (hence Ramses is Ra-meses, or the son of Ra). Pharaoh’s daughter was saying, “I have made him my son / birthed him from the water.” And, indeed, her discovery of Moshe and his subsequent naming presents quite a different depiction of birth than that of the Hebrew women. Here we have an idealized picture of birth—a woman who has given birth without blood, cramps, pain, or labor, and in fact, without pregnancy! The baby arrives already washed and swaddled. Rather than taking place on a hard “birthing stone,” he has birthed into and out of the clean (and sacred) waters of the Nile. Even the labor-intensive, exhausting, bodily interactions with this baby—nursing, cleaning, and early childrearing—are done by someone else. But this idealized image of birth is not ultimately redemptive; it is the life of bodily pains, labor, breast feeding and child-rearing that ultimately brings about the birth of the nation.

A period of dormancy ensues, but after a time the urgency returns.  God sees their suffering (2:25) and remembers them – va’yizkor (2:24), pakod pakadeti etchem (3:16) – just as God saw (Breishit 29:31-32) and remembered (Breishit 21:1; 30:22) our barren foremothers. God now has “seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them” (3:9). The word for oppression here is lachatz, a word that rarely appears elsewhere and which more literally means “pressure.” The pressure is building up, the mother is crying out (see Yishayahu, 26:17), and the time of childbirth is almost at hand. The people will be brought out of Egypt to come into a land flowing with milk and honey (3:8, 17), imagery which evokes mothers, birth, and nurturing (see Devarim, 32:13, and Yishayahu, 7:14–15).

Moshe is dispatched to return to the people and to carry a message to Pharaoh: “Israel is my son, even my firstborn,” and it is this child who is about to be born. However, before this can happen, the narrative interrupts with another birth-related scene. With Moshe and family at the inn, God now seeks to kill “him.” “Him” may refer to Moshe, but it is quite likely Moshe’s son, who, like the firstborn of Egypt, is at risk. His life is saved by Tzipporah when she severs his foreskin with a rock.

The cutting of the foreskin is a pseudo-birth, and the harshness of the rock recalls the birthing stones of the midwives. It also evokes the cutting of the umbilical cord as in Yechezkel, and as in that image, the theme of blood is dominant (“a bridegroom of blood you are to me”). In fact, this is the only passage in the Torah that connects blood to the significance of the brit milah, and this is not by chance. The “childbirth” blood saves Moshe’s son, possibly his firstborn, and soon a similar blood—the blood of the Paschal lamb —will save the people, God’s firstborn. Marking the release of blood—whether from circumcision or sacrifice—is protective and salvific. Unlike the command to Avraham, here the mother circumcises her child rather than the father, takes control of her childbirth, and marks the release of blood, preparing the way for the final redemption.

Now, as the redemption begins, blood and water imagery come to the fore. The cleansing water of the Nile that had allowed for the bloodless childbirth of Pharaoh’s daughter is smitten with the first plague, turning to blood. The unfolding process eventually climaxes with the death of the firstborn. Unlike elsewhere in the Torah, here the firstborn is particularly linked with the mother, not just the father: “from the firstborn of Pharaoh … even unto the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill” (11:5). This becomes symbolized for future generations, when first births will be signified and sanctified through the mitzvah of redeeming the mother’s firstborn child and the ritualized bloodshed of the sacrifice of firstborn animals, both described with the graphic birthing image as the “one who opens the womb” (13:12).

This brings us to the moment of birth. When the firstborn of Egypt are dying, the children of Israel remain protected. They are protected by the sacrificially released blood of the Pesach on their lintels and doorposts. Just as the circumcision blood saved Moshe or his child, this sacrificial blood protects them against the maschit, the destroying angel who would otherwise slay them in their homes, derailing the future redemption. Childbirth is dangerous, and mother or child may die in the process. Sometimes even God’s plan requires our actions to ensure that it will be realized.

The blood on the doorframe does more than protect. It also makes the house into the womb of the nation. The door of the house is surrounded in blood just as the opening of the womb is surrounded in blood during childbirth (I thank Rabbi Dov Lerea for this point). The people will leave be pushed out of their houses, out of their protective womb, the next morning, but the birthing process will only be complete seven days later. It is then that the people will pass through the narrow straits of the split sea. It is then that they will exit the amniotic fluid, move down the birthing canal, and exit a new people on the other side. Theirs will be a birth from the soft, cleansing water. They will be washed of the blood and filth of the Egyptians, their umbilical cord will be cut, and they will be free to become a strong and independent nation.