When my sister in law had her first child, she called up my wife and asked her, “Isn’t my baby the most beautiful baby you have ever seen?”
To which my wife responded, “No. My baby is the most beautiful baby ever.”
Of course, they are both right. To every mother, her baby is the most beautiful, and she would do anything for that child.
This is a phenomenon that goes all the way back to the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. Pharaoh and the Egyptians have been oppressing them. After trying, unsuccessfully, to compel the midwives to murder any male child born to an Israelite, Pharaoh issues a more specific decree: all Israelite boys are to be thrown into the Nile.
Then, in chapter two, the camera zooms in from the wide angle lens to focus in on one particular baby boy: “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.”
And so begins the story of Moses. A couple of problems with our text.
First, as illustrated by the interaction between my wife and sister in law, there is nothing extraordinary about a mother looking at her newborn baby boy and noticing how beautiful he is.
Second, there is also nothing unusual about a mother trying to defy a horrific decree by keeping her son in hiding.
As Nachmanides says: “All women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all hide them to the best of their ability; there is no need to say that he was beautiful to explain why she hid him.”*1*
The universality of a mother and father’s love of her or his child is a given, across all time and culture. So why would the Torah take the time to mention something so obvious?
Naturally, there are a number of commentaries from our tradition that give us additional insight into Moses’ birth. The Torah states, Vatere oto ki tov hu – “When she saw how tov he was…”*2* What does tov mean in this context? The Talmud offers five explanations*3*:
“Rabbi Meir says: His name was Tov” Remember that he does not receive the name Moshe until the Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh rescues him from the Nile River. Tov was his birth name.
“Rabbi Judah says: His name was Tuviah” – This answer is similar to the first one, with two additional letters, yud, heh. These are letters from the name of God. It is common for biblical names to incorporate the Divine name.
“Rabbi Nehemiah says: [She foresaw that he would be] worthy of prophecy” – That is to say, Moses’ mother saw something in him that was not typical. Guided herself perhaps through prophecy, she saw God’s presence in this child in a way that made her confident he would be saved if she took extraordinary measures, which might explain why she sent him off in a basket down the Nile River.
The Talmud’s final two explanations are based on another appearance of the word tov in the Torah: Va’yar elohim et ha’or ki tov*4* – “And God saw that the light was tov.”
The word tov appears seven times in the account of creation. It indicates God’s satisfaction that each of those things that are declared tov have been made complete. The Talmud’s fourth explanation builds on this.
“Others say: He was born circumcised” Circumcision is the perfection, or completion, of the male body. So when Moses’ mother sees him and declares him to be tov, it means that he came out circumcised.
Finally, the last explanation is by the Sages: “At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light — it is written here, ‘And she saw that he was tov,’ and elsewhere it is written: ‘And God saw that the light was tov.'” Moses came out glowing. He was glowing with potential, a new creation. Like the light that God created and separated from darkness on the first day, Moses’ birth heralds the dawn of something new.
Moses is certainly an extraordinary human being. He deserves to have a a story recorded in the Torah about his birth. But the truth is, every child born is beautiful, tov, in all of these senses. Beautiful, complete, perfect, blameless. A continuation of creation. But more than just tov in the present, in that miraculous moment of coming into being. A new human being is also tov in the sense of containing the potential for redemption.
That is why we welcome Elijah the Prophet at a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat ceremony. Elijah, Jewish tradition teaches, will announce the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world. Every baby who is born has the potential to bring the world closer to redemption.
This is why, in our family, we tell our children “I can’t wait to see who you will become.”
This past week, the children of Newtown went back to school for the first time. Our nation is still going through a process of soul-searching after the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school. Those twenty children, all of them tovim: beautiful, perfect creations, contained within them so much potential for goodness in our world.
The tragedy has opened up a conversation about violence in our society, gun control, mental health services, violent video games, eroding moral values, and more. These are important conversations to have. While the connections between any one particular policy issue and different outcomes is often difficult to establish, there is a widespread sense that we are off course, and not doing enough to protect and cultivate the tov in our children.
Many faith communities are getting involved in these issues, including among American Jews. The leadership of Conservative Judaism, representing all of the various bodies of the movement, have recently reiterated its call for tighter regulations of the sale of guns and ammunition through adoption of common sense gun policies.
I am skeptical, given our fractured society, whether anything will be done.
But I want to come back to Nachmanides, who stated the obvious, declared, and I’ll take the liberty of making a couple of slight adjustments “All men and women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all protect them to the best of their ability…”
We may think we are doing the best we can in our own sheltered communities. But we are part of a much larger society, in which the evidence would suggest that we are falling short of Nachmanides’ assumption. We are not protecting our kids to the best of our ability. And that has to change.
When Moses was born, light filled the room. When his mother saw it, she saw his beauty, his potential, his ability to bring goodness into the world, and she declared him tov. Every child fills our world with light. It is up to us to recognize it and build a society in which it can shine.
*1*Commentary on Exodus 2:2
*3*BT Sotah 12a