Israeli Values Religious Voices

Letter 44 - Rabbi Yael Lifshitz

To the State of Israel and all its inhabitants,

One of the defining moments in the description of the birth of the people of Israel and Moses is connected to the image of a foreign woman - the daughter of Pharaoh. What motivated this woman, who lived in the palace of the Egyptian ruler, the house of a tyrant who decreed destruction and oppression of other people, to act contrary to her father's instructions, and against the social norms that required throwing every Hebrew baby boy into the river, to adopt a Hebrew baby?

The Torah describes the empathy of Pharaoh’s daughter, her recognition of the suffering of the foreign baby, and following them, her actions. In simple words, the daughter of Pharaoh is demonstrating, for the first time in our history, the ideal of compassion: “Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe… She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it.  She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said…When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2, 5-10)

Compassion is “a partnership of suffering in which one becomes a partner in the suffering of the other”. (Avi Sagi, “The Challenge of the Return to Tradition”, p.473).

Compassion is not mercy. Mercy does not usually involve practical action to alleviate suffering and may maintain a sense of superiority towards the sufferer.

The State of Israel on its 75th birthday needs a society where compassion prevails no less than technological developments, military strength, and economic progress. A society where we perfect our ability to empathize with those who are different from us, regardless of their affiliation. A society where there is empathy for the suffering of others, which will allow us to think outside of ourselves, feel what the other is feeling, and treat him/her as a friend.

In every generation, and even more so now, we need people like Pharaoh’s daughter, those who are able to break through walls of hostility and hatred and act for the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows of our generation.

Our history reminds us of the story of the righteous gentiles, who had mercy on those condemned to death, in the darkest hours, and who risked their lives.

Israeli society was built, and is still being built today, thanks to those who dare even today not to see others as distant strangers, but to touch their pain and act on their behalf. The Biblical command to feel the pain of the foreigner and break it down into actions driven by compassion, places a moral lighthouse above each and every one of us: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt”. (Exodus 23, 9)


With hope and love,

Rabbi Yael Lifshitz

Rabbi Yael Lifshitz is a leader, teacher, and facilitator of teacher communities through the Be’eri program at the Hartman Institute. She also designs Jewish life cycle rituals.

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