Parenting as an act of resistance
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
We continue on in our series of the five women resisting tyranny in the Exodus story. It’s appropriate, maybe, that we continue with this one during Hanukah—a celebration of resistance to another tyrannical ruler, one who also demanded impossible things of the Jewish people.
But not every woman in the story has equal levels of influence or power.
As Pharaoh’s genocidal plans rage on, the second chapter of Exodus opens with us meeting one such family impacted by them—one such family whose ancestors left home in order to find safety in Egypt, only to be enslaved and persecuted; one such family whose son was ordered to be murdered, only to be saved by the midwives’ unusual bravery. And we meet them first—brief lines, to be sure, but nonetheless included—as they meet and marry. We see the tender beginnings of their family come together, with the chilling knowledge of everything happening just outside this view.
“A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.
The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw ki tov, she hid him for three months.” (Exodus 2:1-2)
Ki tov. She saw that he was good.
Her name, we learn later on in the book of Exodus, is Yocheved, so I will refer to her as such now. Honor people with their names.
There are a lot of linguistic echoes in the Torah—places where words are repeated in new contexts to add another layer of meaning. They're literary hyperlinks, if you will—they refer back to a whole other story or situation or law and infuse our reading of the text in front of us. For example, the Torah’s use of the word that describes defiling the ancient Jerusalem Temple when talking about adultery tells us a lot about how the Bible understood what marriage was, and what was at stake when those vows were broken.1
When Yocheved sees her son and exclaims, ki tov, there are profound resonances. That is, the same language appears at a crucial moment earlier in the Torah—during the creation of the world. God, in the first chapter of Genesis, creates heavens, the earth, the seas, the light—and then, it says,
"And God saw the light, that it was good." (Genesis 1:4)
God saw the light ki tov. And over the course of the next week, as God creates trees and grass and sun and moon and fish and cows and everything—and after almost every day of creation, God says, ki tov. It was good.
We are to see this Israelite baby as not disposable, dehumanized, as Pharaoh does. We are not to see him as part of an enslaved labor force or a threat to the stability of a country. We are to see him—as we are to see every human, even or especially those who have been oppressed and dehumanized by those in power—as part of Creation itself, as whole and beautiful and created in the divine image. And we are to see that when Yocheved creates life, she is, the text implies, like God. She has brought something into being, and when she looks at her creation, she regards him with a divine eye.
Her naming this child as whole, and holy, is in itself an act of resistance.
She had been told in a myriad of ways by the dominant power structure that her child was not irreplaceable, was not valuable, did not hold the worth that Egyptian babies did. And it must have been so easy to begin to believe it. For, as the great 20th century Black poet and writer James Baldwin put it,
“What the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator… because you believe the same things they do.”
This is so often the case. But here, we see Yocheved fight this internalized oppression, refusing to let her oppressors dictate how she would see her own baby. She insists, rather, that this baby is a child of God, that this baby is good—and that she herself is as holy as the Creator. Despite everything they told her. Despite all of it.
And with this assertion comes, I think, the courage to do everything in her power to protect him.
The mental act of resistance is followed closely by a physical one.
“She conceived and bore a son; she saw ki tov, that he was good, and she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.” (Exodus 2:2-3)
Seeing the child’s holiness and taking action—a real risk—to try to save him are linked, are part of the same verse. The hiding him comes immediately after the seeing.
When we see—when we look to see—the holiness in others, to understand their irreplaceability, we are more moved to take action to care for them.
Unfortunately, she had precious little available in her power. So she, like many parents in dangerous, untenable situations, takes the least awful option available to her. She can’t keep him at home forever. Pharaoh’s guards will hear his cries—growing less tiny as he grows—soon, and then he will be crawling, walking, questions will be asked. If her goal is to preserve his life, she must find some other way. She is a mother with precious few choices, and now the best she can do is hope that a miracle and the kindness of strangers will do what she cannot: keep him alive.
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So she waterproofs a basket and floats him down the Nile, hoping for his rescue by, presumably, one of the Egyptian women bathing there. She is no different here than the Jewish parents running from the Gestapo who gave their children to be adopted by non-Jewish neighbors, or asylum seekers trapped on the Mexican side of the US border who, aware that Border Patrol is required to allow unaccompanied minors into the United States, send their children to walk across the border, knowing that, with the many, many risks that it carries, it may—now, still—be nonetheless their best chance for safety and freedom.
In 2019, Alexis Martinez, who had traveled from Honduras with his sons to seek asylum in the United States, watched as his 5-year-old, Benjamin, and his 7-year-old, Osiel, walked by themselves over the Gateway International Bridge from Mexico into Texas. They had spent weeks in a refugee camp on the border, and Martinez was out of other options; Benjamin had contracted pneumonia, and he couldn’t afford any more antibiotics.
Martinez told a reporter,
"They were sleeping on the ground, in the cold. These tents are not good for children because the cold goes right through them. Sometimes you do things not because you're a bad father, but because you want what's good for them, and you don't want to see them suffer."
Martinez saw that they were good. And he, like Yocheved, made an impossible choice.
We must fight until we reach a day when no other parent ever has to.
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Meilah-see Leviticus 5:15 and Numbers 5:12, eg. There’s lots to say about the stomach-curdling misogyny of Numbers 5, of course, and of course many other ways to commit acts of textual activism in our readings of it, but the hyperlinked word is what I’m after, here—that they’re using a word for misuse of Temple stuff to describe adultery.