There is a Torah concept of “a descent for the sake of an ascent.”1 The descent acts as a springboard to launch that which is falling upwards. Moreover, the descent is, in fact, a necessary preparation for the ascent, and its ultimate purpose is the ascent; the descent is nothing other than a part of the ascent itself.”2 Through this spiritual lens, Israel’s exile down to Egypt can be viewed as the prelude to the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.3

Doing Right by Doing Wrong

Consider the life of Moses. Born during Pharoah’s decree of male infanticide against all babies, Moses’s survival was against all odds. These were desperate times indeed. In what might be considered the first recorded act of civil disobedience,4 midwives Shifra and Puah, who our sages identify as Moses’s mother (Yocheved) and sister (Miriam), selflessly endangered their lives by boldly assisting Hebrew mothers safely deliver their babies in defiance of Pharaoh’s brutal decree.5

As we know from the narrative, when she felt that she no longer could hide her baby, Yocheved relinquished her infant son to Divine Providence by placing Moses in the Nile River inside a waterproof basket. As Miriam stood watching from a distance, an astounding occurrence took place. Pharaoh’s daughter and her handmaids appeared. In an unpredictable turn of events, Pharaoh’s daughter rescued what was clearly an endangered Hebrew baby, while her own handmaid reprimanded her for blatantly transgressing the law.6 Pharaoh’s daughter listened to her conscience, thereby defying her father.

Hearing the Cry

“She … saw him, the child, and behold, a youth was crying” (Exodus 2:6).

A puzzling discrepancy comes to light in the wording of this verse. It first describes the three-month old Moses as “the child” (hayeled) and then speaks of a “youth” (na’ar). Every word in the Torah is deliberate, so how are we supposed to understand these words? Rashi explains that both terms refer to Moses who, although just a baby, had a cry that sounded like that of a fully grown boy.

Baal HaTurim, however, presents a fascinating counter-interpretation.7 He agrees that “the child” (hayeled) refers to Moses, but proposes that the crying “youth” (na’ar) is actually Moses’s older brother, Aaron. He derives this from a gematria—a method of revealing numerical correspondence between Hebrew words in the Torah. The words “youth cries” (na’ar bocheh) are numerically equivalent to “Aaron, the Priest” (Aharon ha-Cohen).

This understanding presents a broader perspective through which past and present events connect. Two events, occurring many years apart, are profoundly connected in time. Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit. As Joseph cried out, they chose not to listen, deafening their ears to his despair. This cruelty became the catalyst that led to Joseph's and, later, their own descent into Egypt. By contrast, Aaron’s tearful response to his brother’s plight set off a parallel reaction from above. Divine Providence interceded, overriding the natural order of things.

Now, we can better understand why Pharaoh’s daughter appeared just at the right time. We can perceive the hidden force that propelled her to radically reject her father’s harsh decree. Without the cries of Aaron and the courage of Yocheved, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter, there may not have been a Moses.

Taking Time to Notice

There are pivotal times in our lives when we’re given the choice of whether or not to change our direction or, perhaps, seem forced to make a change. At times, a change may appear to be a setback, as when Joseph was sold into slavery or Moses became a fugitive, fleeing for his life. But as we can see from these examples, the setback may just be a setup for a greater purpose that takes time to be revealed.

Seeing beyond the status quo and taking action are characteristics that distinguish great people. These traits can also distinguish you and me.

Strive to find purpose even while you wait. We’re not merely human beings; we are human “becomings.”

Challenge yourself to become more. When things seem down, know that tomorrow they could start to rise. If you should find yourself plagued by crisis or trauma and your faith is put to the test, try to remember: Every descent is for the sake of a greater ascent.

Making It Relevant

  1. Think about positive steps you can take to remain resolute in your faith, even when being put to the test.
  2. Recognize the pattern of downs and ups in your life. What have you learned? How have you grown?
  3. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you know is right, even if it seems to go against societal “norms.”
  4. Use “setbacks” as “setups” for personal, spiritual or societal growth.