Yocheved, the mother of Moses and Aaron and Miriam, surely was one of the greatest Jewish women that ever lived. Think of it: Moses, who brought the children of Israel out of Egypt and who received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Aaron, who was the high priest and the father of all the kohanim. Miriam, who was a prophetess, in whose merit the children of Israel had water during the forty years wandering in the desert. Was there ever a mother who had three more famous children?
Let us speak of her for a few moments, and see how and why she became the greatest mother in Israel.
Yocheved was the daughter of Levi, Jacob’s son. She was born at the very moment when Jacob and his entire household, Levi and his wife among them, had just entered the gates of Egypt. That was in the year 2238 after Creation. Yocheved was the youngest member of the seventy souls who made up Jacob’s household.
Yocheved was brought up by her father and grandfather. For seventeen years she was together with her grandfather, for Jacob died seventeen years after his coming to Egypt. Yocheved married her nephew Amram, a grandson of her father.
Her father died when Yocheved was 93 or 94 years old, for Levi was the last of Jacob’s twelve sons to die (in the year 2331 or 2332). It was then that the troubled times began for her people. But the real oppression began some thirty years later. It was then that the cruel Pharaoh ordered that all newly born baby boys of the children of Israel be put to death.
Yocheved was the chief Jewish nurse in Egypt. She was a great lover of Jewish children, and devoted all her time to helping young Jewish mothers and their newly born babies. Her daughter Miriam, then still a little girl, only five years old, was helping her.
Pharaoh sent for Yocheved and Miriam and told them that it was up to them to see to it that his order was carefully carried out. Miriam perked up her nose and waved her finger at the cruel king, who was worse than a beast. Pharaoh would have ordered the little girl killed, but her mother pleaded for her life, saying that she was only a child and didn’t know what she was talking about. After leaving the king’s palace, Miriam said: “Mother, what are we going to do? You are not going to kill little babies, are you?”
“Heaven forbid!” Yocheved replied. “Our father Abraham taught us to help people live, even strangers. He set up inns at the crossroads to provide shelter and food for everybody. We are going to work harder than ever to see that every Jewish child should be saved.”
“But Pharaoh will kill us!” Miriam exclaimed.
“We will have to take that chance, even if it costs us our lives,” Yocheved said with determination.
From that day on, Yocheved and Miriam worked day and night. They helped young Jewish mothers. They gathered baby clothes and baby food from the richer Jews to give to the poorer ones. They brought real help and courage to the enslaved and suffering Jewish people. They were real angels of mercy. And G‑d was good to them and protected them. They found one excuse after another for Pharaoh, and he did not kill them.
When Pharaoh gave out that cruel decree, Yocheved and her husband, Amram, decided to separate. “What is the use of raising a family if the children are to be thrown into the water?” they said. But Miriam said to her father, “What you are doing will hurt our people even more than Pharaoh can hurt us. For Pharaoh wants to destroy our baby boys only. But if all Jewish parents would follow your example—and you are, after all, the greatest and wisest leader of them all—there would soon be no Jewish people left at all, for no one would want to raise a family!”
Yocheved and Amram saw that their little girl was right. “We must do our duty, and let G‑d do His,” they decided, and they remarried again. Once again Miriam prophesied: “I’m going to have a little brother who will save our people!” And again she was right . . . For soon little Moses was born, and the whole house was filled with light. Three years earlier Aaron had been born, when Miriam was two years old.
For three months after Moses was born, Yocheved hid him from Pharaoh’s officers, who went from house to house to search for Jewish baby boys. Then she knew that she could no longer hide him. Rather than give up the boy to the cruel Egyptians, Yocheved decided to entrust him to G‑d. She made a little box out of wood, made it watertight, and placed it among the reeds in the Nile, with a prayer to G‑d to save him.
When little Moses was placed in the water, the stargazers of Pharaoh thought that the boy who was to be the champion of the children of Israel had been drowned, and it was not necessary to throw any more children into the water. Let them grow up and be slaves to Pharaoh, they said.
Well, you know what happened to little Moses, and how he was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter Bitya. Little Miriam, who stood by to see what would happen, came up to the princess. She didn’t tell her that it was her little brother, but she said that she had better get a Jewish nurse for him, for he would have no other. Then she ran to her mother, and so Moses was actually nursed by his own mother without any stranger knowing about it.
You can well imagine what good care Yocheved gave to little Moses. When he grew up, she told him who he was. She taught him to be brave and risk his life to save his brethren, just as she and Miriam had done. And that is how Moses grew up to be the great man, the greatest man that ever lived. And the very first day he went out to help his brethren, he risked his life to save a fellow Jew from a cruel slave-driver . . .
Yocheved was known by two other names. In the beginning of the book of Exodus (Shemot) she is called Shifrah, which means “Beautiful.” She was so called because she would make Jewish children beautiful and healthy by the good care she gave them. In the book of Chronicles (Divrei Hayamim) she is called Yehudiyah, the Jewess, because she risked her life to save the Jewish people.
The great sage Rabbi Judah Hanassi (who gathered and arranged the Oral Law into the six volumes of the Mishnah), when speaking of Yocheved, said: “There was a Jewish woman who was the mother of 600,000 children.” He explained that he meant Yocheved, who gave birth to Moses, who was worth as much as all the people of Israel who came out of Egypt.
The Jews of Italy used to say a special hymn in honor of Yocheved on the day of Simchat Torah. They sang her praises on the day of rejoicing with the Torah, because she was the mother of Moses, who received the Torah from G‑d for our people.
Yocheved lived to see her daughter Miriam lead all the Jewish women in praise of G‑d after the crossing of the Red Sea, and her two sons Moses and Aaron receive the crowns of royalty and priesthood. What great nachat (joy) she enjoyed from her children! May all Jewish mothers be like her.