Parashat Va'era, Exodus 6:2-9:35
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All we know about Moses' mother comes down to two verses.
We collect souvenirs to remind us of places we've visited, but the most lasting impressions are made by the places where we've lived. Case in point: My husband and I spent a number of years in New York City in the mid-80s, and ever since then we get each other's attention by saying: "yo!" What I assumed to be a distinctively New York phrase turns out actually to be much older. While there are some who attribute it to Italian neighborhoods in 1960s Philadelphia, other reference sources trace this expression back to the 15th century. Some theorize that it is a sailors' expression (yo-ho-ho), but many attributions to sea-faring slang fall short.
In Hebrew "yo" is a syllable that is a shortened form of God's name and appears in many Biblical names (e.g., Yoel [Joel], Yonatan [Jonathan], etc.). The first example of such a name is in parashat Va'era, which introduces Moses' mother by name. Last week we already found out a little bit about Moses' parents but without specific details: A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. (Exodus 2:1-3) This week provides a genealogy which names names: Amram took to wife his father's sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses… (Exodus 6:20)
Most interesting about this is that the woman is named, a highly unusual occurrence in the Bible (Aaron's wife, Elisheva, is also named, though you will note that Miriam is left out of this genealogy). All we know about Moses' mother comes down to two verses: this one and Numbers 26:59 (which includes Miriam in the geneology). Though Moses' mother is named in both verses we don't always get her name right. Anyone who has seen Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments will recall that Moses' mother was called Yochabel (pronounced Yoshabel). (In a strange bit of typecasting the actress who played Yochabel, Martha Scott, went on to play Charlton Heston's mother once again, three years later in Ben-Hur.)
Yocheved, or Jochebed in English translation, is thought to mean "God's glory": "yo" representing God's name and "cheved" taken to be from the root k-b-d, for glory. The midrash interprets her name differently. Leviticus Rabbah looks to the Book of Chronicles to explain the significance of Moses' mother and in so doing bestows upon her her a different name:
The Book of Chronicles was given only to be interpreted midrashically. And his wife Hayehudiyah bore Yered the father of Gedor (Abi-Gedor), and Heba the father of Soco, and Yekutiel the father of Zanoah--and these are the sons of Bitiah the daughter of Pharaoh, whom Nered took (I Chronicles 4:18). ’And his wife Hayehudijyah’; that is Yocheved. Was she then of the tribe of Judah-was she not of the tribe of Levi? Why then was her name called ’Hayehudiyah’? Because she brought Jews (Yehudim) into the world.
Leviticus Rabbah 1:3 based on the Soncino translation
The name Hayehudiyah has two meanings: 1) "Woman of Judah" which explains the comment that she was actually from the tribe of Levi and not Judah. Thus, if this other name for Yocheved does not describe her tribal affiliation, it must mean something else. 2) "The Jewish woman" which would be a most appropriate designation for Yocheved given the role she plays in producing three Jewish leaders. Midrashically, Yocheved was also thought to be one of the midwives, and so in the rabbinic view she certainly "brought Jews into the world."
Look closely at parashat Va'era and you will see that the root k-b-d which appears in Yocheved's name also appears elsewhere. As discussed in last year's Torah study on Va'era, we are told five times that Pharaoh's heart was heavy (kaved). The same root k-b-d is shared by the Hebrew words for "heavy" and "glory."
What's the difference between k-b-d as it applies to Pharaoh and to Moses' mother? Why is the great king of Egypt burdened, while the lowly Hebrew slave is not? The difference is in her name that includes that little syllable "yo," which stands for God's name. God's presence alleviates her burden and will soon lead to her emancipation. Pharaoh's burden grows by equal measure because of his stubborn denial of God, a denial which grows increasingly heavier and will immobilize the king.
In the Torah as in our modern language this little syllable "yo" is an attention-getter. For New Yorkers it may be a simple greeting or an emphasis. For Yocheved and her people it is a constant reminder of God's presence.
Rabbi Michal Shekel