12/18/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Born Is the King of Israel (Shemot, Exodus 1:1-6-1)

Happy Holidays! For our Christian friends and neighbors, this is the period that commemorates the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ. But did you know that this week also recalls the birth of another savior -- that of Israel?

Our Torah reading, which begins the book of Shemot (Exodus), lists the names of the sons of Israel. Presumably Jacob's daughters (plural, see Genesis 46:7) were busy having babies, or at least midwifing them into life. The first chapter of Exodus ends on an ominous note, having introduced the Pharaoh-who-knew-not-Joseph. Scripture matter-of-factly reports him saying, "Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile; but let every girl live" (Exodus 1:22).

However, when the Torah reports the birth of the man whom many thought of as the first king and savior of Israel, it does so in a narrative vacuum. It reads, "A man from the tribe of Levi went and married a daughter of the tribe of Levi. She conceived and bore a son..." (Ex. 2:1-2).

An interesting story to a point, especially once we realize that the baby is Moses. And clearly, he is in danger of being drowned. But where are his older siblings? Why are they not mentioned? What happened to Aaron and Miriam? Even if we were to suppose that Miriam has been relegated to midwife duty, thereby shoving her behind the curtain out of sight, we would expect that Aaron might have gotten a mention in the verse. I am compelled to point out that when we hear seasonal stories about the birth of Jesus this time of year, those narratives are equally mum about his siblings.

But back to baby Moses -- let us not leave him in the lurch. The absence of mention of his siblings gave rise to an ingenious midrashic explanation for the odd verse of Scripture. Why were Aaron and Miriam not mentioned? Well, when Pharaoh made his evil decree to kill off the male children, their father Amram -- who was the leader of his tribe of Levites, reasoned: "Shall we have children for naught? Could I bear having to drown my child were it to be a son?" So rather than run the risk of impregnating his wife Yocheved, he divorced her, lest they have a child who would be killed.

But as it happened, she was already two or three months pregnant. Their daughter Miriam, who was a prophetess, implored him to remarry her mother, as she said, "Mother is destined to bear a son who will be the savior of the Israelites. And as for you, Father; Pharaoh only decreed against the male children, while you want to uproot everything!" (See, e.g. Midrash Shemot Rabbah 1:13)

So Amram, that man of the tribe of Levi, went and took Yocheved, a daughter of the tribe, [once again] as his wife. She gave birth to baby Moses, "and she hid him for three months." How so? The Egyptians assumed she was a newlywed and did not expect her to be pregnant so soon. So she was able to hide the baby for a period until her pregnancy showed, before setting Moses on the Nile. Once she set the baby on the Nile, Amram came to Miriam distraught. "Now where is your prophesy?" he asked her. So it is said, ""And his sister stood watch from afar to know what would become of him" (Ex. 2:4)." That is to say, what would become of her prophecy.

All that is missing from this romantic and imaginative retelling of the tale of the birth of Moses is a manger and three wise men. Replace them with the Nile and the bulrushes and we have a story fit for this holiday season. Miriam the prophetess oversees the birth of Israel's savior. The Israelites will go free led by their good shepherd Moses. Passover will become the holiday of our redemption. And with our Christian, Muslim and all our other American neighbors, we wish for peace on earth and good will towards humanity.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.