Determining right from wrong is something with which we are constantly challenged throughout our lives. Yet nothing is harder to face and acknowledge than when the “wrong” is happening in our own homes and the “right” is something that we were raised to believe is completely foreign and, if anything, evil.
In the Torah portion She is a prime example of someone who faced this challengeof Shemot we are introduced to a woman known as bat Pharaoh—simply “the daughter of Pharaoh.” She is a prime example of someone who faced this challenge and taught us that we all have the strength to overcome it. And once she does, she is then referred to by her true name, Batyah.
“She gets up while it is still night, sustaining her household and giving a portion to her maidens.” (Proverbs 31:15, from the “A Woman of Valor” poem)
According to one interpretation of our Sages, each verse of “A Woman of Valor,” composed by King Solomon, refers to a uniquely outstanding woman in history. Two of these women, Batyah and Rachav, were women who converted to Judaism as adults. Both came from cultures—indeed, from families—steeped in idolatry and licentiousness, yet each managed to see past the lives they were born into, recognize holiness and embrace it.
What makes Batyah’s story all the more compelling is that, as her corresponding verse states, “She gets up while it is still night.” Night is always a symbol for exile, for during the night we are surrounded by darkness, unable to see what is real, even if it is right in front of us. In the dark, everything loses its proper form, its proper place. It is easy to get lost and confused. And yet, when we know that following the night will come the day, that right after the dark there will be light, we are not only not scared of it but are able to face it and work through it, confident that in time the truth will show itself.
Growing up as the daughter of Pharaoh, she saw firsthand her father’s immense cruelty and abuse of power, while hearing every decree uttered against the Jewish people. When Pharaoh contracted a severe type of leprosy, his “healers” told him that the only cure would be to bathe in the blood of Jewish infants every day, and without hesitation he ordered hundreds of babies to be killed. In order to save the lives of the babies, G‑d healed his disease, yet Pharaoh soon issued another decree, this time that all male Jewish infants be killed and all females kidnapped and raised in Egyptian idolatry.
Perhaps there were others in the world who heard what was happening and felt pity for the Jewish people. If there were, however, they didn’t act on their feelings, and they are never mentioned. Regarding Batyah, not only were genuine feelings of compassion aroused, feelings she would soon act on, but something else was awakened. When She chose to join the very people her father had set out to destroyshe looked at the environment in which she was growing up, and contrasted it with the nobility of the Jewish people even in the darkest part of Egyptian exile, there was no doubt in her mind who possessed true royalty or where G‑d could be found. She chose to join the very people her father had set out to destroy.
The Talmud relates that Batyah set out one morning to immerse herself in the Nile in order to convert to Judaism. She heard the distinctive cry of an infant and, finding a small ark floating in the water, she stretched out her arm to reach it. Seeing a baby boy inside, she immediately recognized that he was a Jewish baby, set adrift in an effort to escape her father’s murderous decree. Already her Jewish soul had begun to guide her, although her conversion was not yet complete, and she dared to not only save the baby but to take him into Pharaoh’s own palace to raise him, despite the fact that his Jewish identity would be obvious.
She named him Moses, “for I drew him (meshitihu) from the water.”
Though Moses had seven names, it is by the name that he received from Batyah that he is remembered. More significantly, it is only by this name that G‑d Himself addresses Moses. So extraordinary was Batyah’s act of kindness that she was willing to risk death at the hands of Pharaoh in order to save the child. It was specifically this action that became the basis for the name of the greatest prophet who has ever lived.
As one contemporary chassidic rebbe pointed out, it is significant that the name given to Moses by Batyah is a word based on the act of saving his life, and not on the feelings of mercy that Batyah experienced. This detail conveys one of the Torah’s central lessons quite beautifully: we can claim to feel a variety of things, but it is our actions in this world that have lasting impact.
A person’s Hebrew name is intimately connected with the person’s soul, both its source and its mission in this world. Not only is Moses’ name homage to the woman who raised him; it also reflects the way he led his life. When G‑d threatened to destroy the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf, Moses demanded, “Erase me from Your book.” All his actions were based on self-sacrifice for his fellow JewsIn fact, all his actions were based on self-sacrifice for his fellow Jews—a trait that he acquired from Batyah’s daring rescue of him as an infant.
Moses’ parents were righteous leaders of their generation. They risked their lives countless times on behalf of their brethren. Yet our sages credit a great deal of what Moses became to Batyah, the daughter of Pharaoh.
When Moses was born, the room became filled with light. This is the unique spiritual power he received as the son as of Yocheved and Amram. Yet it was Batyah who nurtured that light and helped him to internalize it and manifest it to the degree that he reached an even higher level, a level where his face radiated G‑dly light. The colleagues of Mar Ukva (a sage of the Talmud) referred to him as “he whose countenance shines like the son of Batyah.” In other words, they accredited this achievement of Moses to Batyah’s influence.
Moses is known for his extreme humility and his intense compassion—not only for people, but even for the sheep entrusted to his care. As great as were the spiritual gifts he was born with, it was only through disciplined efforts that he was able to transform himself into a man of such refinement. It was Batyah’s own act of incredible self-transformation that the sages say influenced Moses, inspiring in him the conviction that significant change is possible.
Without a doubt, the positive influence was mutual. Jewish mysticism speaks of the symbiotic relationship between converts (primarily during the conversion process) and baalei teshuvah (a reference, in its broadest sense, to anyone in a process of spiritual growth). Both are aiming to transform themselves, yet each is approaching this challenge from a different direction and drawing on his or her own unique resources. At every moment this relationship is tugging at all of us on a subconscious level, and each of us helps the other towards achieving their goal. The advantage of the baalei teshuvah is in their inheritance, a set of spiritual riches they carry inside but of which they may not always be aware. The advantage of converts is in their vision of, and almost explosive desire to be a part of, the Jewish people.
In Batyah, we can perhaps see what this relationship looks like when brought into consciousness. “She arose while it was still night,” when the Jews had no allies in the world other than a G‑d who had not yet redeemed them. She nurtured and raised the child who would eventually lead us out of EgyptShe recognized the beauty and power of Jews and of Judaism, and she risked her own life to shield what she knew to be sacred. She nurtured and raised the child who would eventually lead us out of Egypt, while no doubt learning and growing as a result of what she saw in her interactions with Moses and, in isolated instances, his family.
It was Batyah’s ability to act on the truth that she recognized which elevated her from being bat Pharaoh, the daughter of Pharaoh, to being truly Batyah, the daughter of G‑d.