Parashat Sh’mot begins with the foreboding news that there’s a new Pharaoh in town. And this Pharaoh, the world’s first anti-Semite, feels threatened by Jews, as anti-Semites tend to be. So, he orders two Jewish midwives, named Shifrah and Pu’ah, to murder Jewish babies as they are born. But the midwives, heroically, circumvent the evil decree by telling Pharaoh that Jewish women are like animals, giving birth so quickly it’s impossible to kill their babies before they are born. Pharaoh falls for the clever ruse—the women knew to appeal to his perverted view of Jews as less than human— but, being a resourceful genocidist, Pharaoh simply orders that all Jewish baby boys be drowned in the Nile.
At this time, a Jewish woman named Yocheved (some say she also went by the name Shifrah), gives birth to her own baby boy. Desperate to protect her newborn son, she hides him from the death squads. Imagine her fear every time an Egyptian soldier walks by, listening for the telltale cooing of an infant. Imagine how little sleep she is getting, staying awake to nurse her son the instant he makes a sound in the dark. Imagine her doing the daily chores, collecting straw, trudging through mud to fulfill the daily quota of bricks, cooking and cleaning for her husband and other children, with a baby strapped tightly to her chest. Her entire body aches and with each twinge in the knees, the hips, the lower back she is consumed with despair; for the pain reminds her that her son is growing strong and healthy and that she cannot conceal him much longer.
At three months, she is left with no choice but to give him up and devises a crazy, dangerous plan. She will place the boy in a basket and set him adrift on the river—the very river that Pharaoh intended as a grave for children such as hers—in the hope that kind strangers will find her son and raise him as their own. She does not know how she knows, but she knows, that the mighty river is her son’s path to salvation and the destiny that awaits him.
And, if we close our eyes we can see her, on the morning she realizes it is time to let her son go. She sits by the river’s edge, a pile of reeds beside her that she weaves expertly into a basket. She dips her right hand into a bucket of pitch and rubs the sticky substance over the surface, making sure to cover every crevice where water might enter. She lines the basket with a fine blanket and places a lock of her hair in one corner of the basket so that a piece of her accompanies him on the treacherous voyage.
While waiting for the pitch to dry, she picks up her son to nurse and when he finds her breast, some intuition tells her this will not be the last time (Indeed, we learn that when Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby in the bulrushes, the wet-nurse she hires to minister to him is none other than Yocheved). When he finishes suckling, he looks up and smiles at his mother. And, though she is about to send her baby boy into harm’s way, she is utterly calm. In fact, for the first time since he was born, she is filled with hope.
As a parent, with four grown children, this section of Parashat Sh’mot resonates deeply with me. And though the exodus of the Silverman sons and daughters from our comfortable home in Skokie to campuses in New York and College Park and, then, lives in the real world, is hardly as dramatic a tale as that of Yocheved and Moshe, the feelings of loss and loneliness I experienced were unsettling. I think it’s interesting that we characterize such natural leave-taking by the term “letting our children go.” This term, almost identical to the one Moshe will repeatedly use with Pharaoh, leads me to wonder: if parents resist letting their children go, are they no better than an evil overlord? Is providing a warm bed, home-cooked meals and free laundry service or asking, only, that someone send a text if they are planning to stay out all night simply a form of slavery? (Seriously, is that asking so much?)
Amy Hirshberg Lederman, author of an essay entitled, The Ultimate Balancing Act: Letting Go of Our Children, offers an interesting take on how parents can let their grown children go, by applying the Kabbalistic concept of tsimtsum or “contraction of the Divine.” Jewish mystics believe that, at the time of creation, the world was filled up by God such that there was no space for anything else to exist. Therefore, in order for the world to come into being, God had to withdraw some of His presence. But though God pulled back, He stayed close and provided continuing guidance and oversight to his children.
Hirshberg Lederman suggests that Jewish parents can similarly employ the principle of tsimtsum. By gradually contracting from their lives, we give our kids the space they need to create their own realities, pursue their own dreams, make their own mistakes and find their own happiness. But we need not pull back entirely. “The trick as a parent,” she writes, “is finding that balance.”
Perhaps this week’s parsha poem, entitled, Letting Go will reveal the degree to which I’ve found the balance of which she speaks. The poem is inspired by the third of my four kids, Rebecca, who lives in Los Angeles and is about to turn 25 (!). Rebecca is a talented photographer who seven years ago, before she left home to spend a year in Israel, gave me a gift: a framed picture she took of her bright green bicycle, juxtaposed against the brilliant, blue palette of Lake Michigan on a sunny, summer day.
Before you left, you gave me a gift, a framed
picture you took of your bike, a heavy Schwinn
without gears or handbrakes, its bright green frame
juxtaposed against the brilliant, blue palette of Lake
Michigan on a sunny summer day. With your steady
hands and artist’s eyes, you positioned the Schwinn
in such a way it looks like you could hop on and with
a few thrusts of your cross-country-hardened legs,
catapult onto the surface of the great lake.
I imagine you taking off, picking up speed as you pass
incredulous swimmers, spraying them with your wake,
ignoring the angry lifeguard’s bullhorned cry:
Come back to shore IMMEDIATELY! His thin voice
recedes as, unafraid, you head past the breaker into
open water. You spin the pedals easily, skimming waves
and vaulting swells, as if you and the Schwinn are
weightless. Suddenly, inspired, you pull back on the
handlebars and are airborne. You are breaking laws
of nature, but never have you felt more connected to
the natural world. From up high, you see for miles in
every direction, as a bird might (or an angel) and you
are no longer pedaling. The jet stream propels you
and you are drawn higher and higher towards the
beautiful, beckoning sun. You’ve flown in an airplane
many times, enclosed and harnessed, prisoner to the
technology of how to get from Point A to B, but this
is different. This dazzling, magical flight isn’t about
reaching a destination, but how to get there. It’s about
freedom and creativity, enlightenment and wonder.
And if God’s presence is sometimes difficult for you
to feel with your feet on the ground, up here you appreciate
the vast order that exists within chaos. For the first time,
you understand that beyond the horizon is more horizon
and beyond the galaxy are more galaxies. Yet, somehow,
this understanding doesn’t scare you, it only makes you
wonder how far you can travel.
Once, when you were little, a house came up for sale down
the block and you asked us to buy it, so that when you grew
up you could stay close to me and mom forever.
Now, someone else lives in that house we did not buy for you
and your bright green Schwinn is parked in the garage, where
you left it, waiting for its’ rider and a sunny summer day.
When you come back to earth, I know you will find your way home.