Shaarei Shamayim

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My colleague, Rabbi Jack Reimer (“The Two Mothers Of Moses,” 2012), asks a great question about the central character in the Torah that I’d like to share with you today in honor of Mother’s Day weekend. He asks: “Who was the greater influence on the character of Moses, his birth mother or his adoptive mother?” It’s the old nature verses nurture argument. He then deepens the question: “Did Moses get his compassion from his mother—a slave? Did he get his self-confidence and his ability to lead from his adoptive mother—the daughter of Pharaoh? And did these 2 mothers ever meet?”


A verse in the Torah provides a hint. Yocheved—Moses’ birth mother—kept him at home as long as she could. But the Egyptian police were always searching the homes of the Jews for new-born baby boys to throw into the river. After a few months—in desperation—she put her child into a waterproofed crib and set it afloat in the river—stationing her daughter Miriam to guard it and see what would happen. Miracle of miracles, of all the possible people in the world who might come down to the river that day, the daughter of Pharaoh came to bathe. She discovered the child, and—instead of turning it over to the police to be executed—she decided to save it. Of all the people in the world to defy the order of Pharaoh, it is his very own daughter who feels for this baby and decides to adopt it.


Here comes the hint. Miriam came out of hiding and approached the daughter of Pharaoh and said to her (Ex. 2:7): “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to nurse this child for you?” When Pharaoh’s daughter answered “Yes,” Miriam went and brought his mother Yocheved.

Pharaoh’s daughter then said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” Imagine, the daughter of Pharaoh pays the mother of Moses to do that which she wants to do more than anything else in the world! How fortunate she must have felt that day! When the child was weaned, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son—calling him Moses, “for she drew him from the water.”


Is it possible that during this time when Yocheved was nursing the child that she never brought him to the palace, that she never reported to the adopted mother on how the child was doing? And could it be that, when she delivered the child to his adoptive mother, that she didn’t stay in the palace for a while, or that she didn’t ever come to visit, to see how he was doing? The Torah doesn’t say, but it’s possible that these 2 women may have stayed in touch and became somewhat close.


Rabbi Reimer then writes: I have a fantasy—I admit that I have no proof—but I have a fantasy that in later years, every time that Moses came to the palace to confront Pharaoh and warn him to let the Israelites go free, that he stopped by to say hello to his mom and to ask how she was. I picture him saying: “Hi, Mom, how’re you doing?” And I picture him saying: “Can’t you put any sense into the stubborn head of that Pharaoh of yours and get him to listen to reason? And by the way, regards from my mom, Yocheved. She says to tell you that she’s doing fine and that she hopes you are too. And she told me to tell you that the next time I come here, she is going to send some chicken soup and kugel with me, because she knows how much you like her cooking.”


Rabbi Reimer is not the only one who has such fantasies. The Midrash has them too. It claims that when the Israelites left Egypt, that the daughter of Pharaoh went with them. And Jewish tradition has it that Gd loved her so much that He changed her name from “daughter of Pharaoh” to Batya, which means, “daughter of Gd.”


It could be that this was the 1st case in history of what is now called “open adoption.” Adoption is a great mitzvah in Jewish tradition. I can think of no mitzvah that is more demanding—that takes more of ourselves to fulfill for a longer period of time—than adoption does. Blessed and praised be those who are able and willing to carry out this great mitzvah. They literally save lives when they do.


Most adoptions are “closed adoptions,” which means the adopting parents never get to meet the birth mother, or even learn who she is. This is the case because a great many of the children who are adopted today are orphans or come from China, Romania, Ethiopia or South America where there is little likelihood that the adopting parents, who live in this country, will ever get to meet the birth mother, who lives thousands of miles away.


Another reason is because parents who adopt are worried—understandably so—that the birth mother may someday change her mind and try to take her child back. And so laws have been passed in a great many states that forbid adoption agencies from ever revealing the name of the birth mother to the adopting parents or the names of the adopting parents to the birth mother.


There are valid medical reasons to find the biological parents—like finding a match for bone marrow or a kidney. But besides these very rare exceptions, the adoption agency is not permitted to reveal the name of the birth mother to the child. Most states and most agencies believe in closed adoptions, for they don’t want to open the adopting parents to the dreadful possibility of a birth mother coming into their lives and demanding a share in their child’s life.


Andrea Berman Matis has written a book called, Serenaid: A Triumph of Love, that tells an incredible story of an open adoption. Andrea was a talented and life-loving young woman who came down with a dreadful disease called Scleroderma and couldn’t have children, so she decided to adopt. She found a pregnant woman who realized that she was in no position to give her child a proper home. This woman interviewed several prospective parents and then chose to turn her baby over to her and her husband.


They gave Katherine—the birth mother—their word that they would keep in touch with her, and they did. Twice a year: on the baby’s birthday and Christmas, Andrea would write to Katherine and send her pictures of the baby. And twice a year: on Mother’s Day and on the baby’s birthday, Katherine would write back, giving them updates on her own life and asking questions about how the baby was doing as he grew up.


Their friendship deepened over the years. When Katherine married and had a child, Andrea and her family sent gifts. When their son went to elementary school and then to high school, Katherine got full reports of his achievements. When he was 15, Andrea invited Katherine to come to the house and meet her son for the 1st time since he was born. All of them were nervous and apprehensive, but the love and the respect that they felt for each other made it all joyous.


From this we see that mentschlichkeit is possible—even in spite of the greatest temptations, such as greed or mistrust. Katherine’s family criticized her for giving her baby away for free and urged her to charge a fortune for him instead, but Katherine was more interested in finding the right set of parents for her child than in making money from her child. Andrea’s family was apprehensive about letting this child’s birth mother know where they were, out of fear that she would make trouble for them, but Andrea’s instinct was to trust and feel empathy for this poor woman, who had given up her child for the sake of her child.


Let me share with you an amazing poem found in the book:

Once there were 2 women

Who never knew each other;

One you do not remember,

The other you call mother.

2 different lives shaped to make yours one.

One became your guiding star,

The other became your sun.

The 1st gave you life,

The 2nd taught you how to live it.

The 1st gave you a need for love,

And the 2nd was there to give it.

One gave you a nationality,

The other gave you a name.

One gave you the seed of talent,

The other gave you an aim.

One gave you emotions,

The other calmed your fears.

One saw your 1st sweet smile,

The other dried your tears.

One gave you up—it was all that she could do,

The other prayed for a child—

And Gd led her straight to you.

And now you ask me through your tears,

The age-old question through the years,

Heredity or environment—

Which are you a product of?

Neither my darling—neither

Just 2 different kinds of love.


That is the way I picture the 2 mothers of Moses: Yocheved—his birth mother—and the daughter of Pharaoh—his adoptive mother—relating to each other. I picture the 2 of them raising this child together, each grateful to the other, each sharing in his development, each responsible for a part of who he eventually became.


It’s not for me or anyone else to tell a couple when or whether they should adopt. But if you ever make that decision, I would suggest that you learn from Andrea and Katherine and from Yocheved and the daughter of Pharaoh and consider the possibility of an open adoption—circumstances permitting—despite its risks and dangers.


And for whoever adopts a child—no matter the circumstances—may Gd bless you and reward you for your courage and your trust and for doing the greatest of mitzvot. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b; Megila 13a) teaches: “The Torah looks upon one who adopts a child as if he/she had begotten it.” That’s why—according to Jewish law—an adoptive child is duty bound to honor and revere his/her adoptive parents. They are in every important respect his real parents. That’s why we call Moses by the name his adoptive mother gave him.


When souls are reincarnated, most mystics believe, they come back with people they were close to in a former life, but not necessarily in the same relationships. A father might become a brother, etc. But the biological relationships are not crucial as long as the souls are together—i.e. a mother might become an adopted daughter. The point is, when a child is adopted its soul is right where it belongs.


Let me conclude with a cartoon from “Family Circle” I cut some 20 years ago. I give a copy of it to every family I know that adopts a child. A couple of kids playing in a sand box were talking about where they came from when one says, “We came from Mommy’s tummy. But [pointing to the baby in a nearby carriage] Joseph is adopted, so he came from his mommy’s heart!” There’s nothing more that can be said! Happy Mother’s Day to all. Amen!


                                                                        Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis



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