Nature or nurture, it’s one of ongoing controversies about human behavior of our time. Are we more a product of our nature, our genes or are we more a product of our environment and experience? Can we overcome our inherent nature?
We can clearly see this in the story of Batya, Moses’ adoptive mother who was also Pharaoh’s daughter. There are many puzzling things about the story. 1st, Batya was bathing in the Nile when she saw baby Moses floating in a basket down the river? But why? Wasn’t there a royal bathhouse on the palace grounds? How could she have defied her father’s decree by saving a Jewish baby boy from death in the Nile and then bringing him home to the palace? Was she the 1st case in recorded history of a single parent adoption? As we take a closer look at Batya we will see how beautiful a neshama, a soul, she was.
I want to share with you an insight into the story of Pharaoh’s daughter that helps shed some light on these questions. It’s an insight I learned from Dr. Shmuel Klitsner, sent to me by my colleague Rabbi Jack Reimer. Dr. Klitsner—a therapist and Torah scholar from Jerusalem—noticed a nuance in a small word that turns our understanding of Pharaoh’s daughter upside down.
How is the daughter of Pharaoh introduced in the Torah? Vateyred bat Paro lirchotz al hay’or, “Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe by the River” (Ex. 2:5). Did any of you notice the strange word in this passage? I didn’t. Dr. Klitsner notes the strange usage of the word, al. Most translate it as “in” or “by” the River. However, to say “in” or “by” in Hebrew, we would not use the word al, but add the prefix b’ to the word y’or, “River.” What does the word al mean? It means “over” or “upon,” and sometimes it can mean, “about” or “concerning.” The literal meaning of the text is then: “Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe over the river.”
The Talmud understands the word al as meaning, “concerning it” or “about it.” You see, her father the Pharaoh had contaminated the river by drowning innocent Jewish children in it, and so she went down to the river to cleanse herself from the sin of her father, and in order to cleanse the river from the sins that were committed in it. If you translate the text literally, it means that she went down to purify herself, and to make atonement for the river, and for the sins that her father committed in it.
Pharaoh cast Jewish baby boys into the river and so his daughter Batya deliberately draws a Jewish boy out of the river. Although she herself committed no crime, she felt guilty and responsible for the crimes her father committed. She felt the need to cleanse herself concerning her father’s murderous acts and so she goes to the place where her father did his brutal deeds and tries to wash herself clean of his sins there.
I think this is a fascinating way to think of Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter. I think of her not only as the 1st single woman in recorded history to adopt a child. Now I think of her as the 1st example of the 2nd Generation Children of the Nazis. Let me explain.
As I’ve mentioned before, there are a significant number of young Germans who go to Israel as volunteers to work on the kibbutzim every summer. Do you know that there are a number of young Germans who are the descendants of Nazis who have converted to Judaism, and who live in Israel today? I don’t know exactly how many, but that there are any is impressive.
There’s a special program called, “The March of Life”—as opposed to “The March of the Living” for Jewish children—which brings several hundred young Germans and Poles to visit the concentration camps every year. There was an article in The Times of Israel recently about this program called, “Grandpa, Did You Really Help Build These Gas Chambers?” Let me read you part of it:
Like many of the visitors who cry at Auschwitz, Barbel Pfeiffer has a personal connection to this place. But in her case, the relative who spent time at this death camp was not a prisoner. It was her grandfather, who was one of the people who helped build it! He was an electrician who worked on electrical projects there, and who helped build the gas chambers.
“I have been to Auschwitz 5 times already, and every time I go, it makes me cry again,” says Mrs. Pfeiffer, whose grandfather was one of those who installed the camp’s electrical system, and its gas chambers.
For her latest visit, this 42-year-old German traveled to the camps as part of a delegation of 420 from countries including Poland and Germany. Pfeiffel’s visit shared much in common with the March of the Living, but it differed in one important respect. More than 50 of those on this pilgrimage were descendants of the Nazis or of collaborators.
‘Our aim is to show the Jewish people that we stand by their side, and that we will not keep silent when someone threatens to destroy the Jewish people,’ said Heinz Reuss, who came from Tubingen, Germany. Mr. Reuss is a member of the TOS Ministries, which is a network of German Protestant Churches that organized this pilgrimage. He decided to join when he explored his family’s history, and found out, much to his shock, that his relatives had been active Nazis. “It is true that there is still anti-Semitism in Germany, but there are also a lot of us who want to break the silence, and who want to speak out against our country’s past,” he said…
Ms. Pfeiffer is determined to make sure that her own children will not suffer the kind of ignorance that she had about the family history that she had when she was a child. They are still too young to take on this journey, but she considers it vital to educate them about the past.
“I called them from Auschwitz, and told them how I felt,” she says. They asked me, “Mommie, why are you crying?” and I said to them, “because I know what was done here, and what part our family had in what happened here. And when you are a little bit older, I will take you here, so that you can understand too.”
When they stood at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto, Lev Shemtov, who is a member of the Knesset, spoke to the group. He said to them, “You need not feel guilt over what your grandparents did. But you do need to feel responsible for seeing that what they did never happens again…Our Torah teaches that children should not bear the sins of their parents. However, the continuation of Anti-Semitism which we see in Germany today is your responsibility. You must do everything you can to make sure that what happened there once, never happens again.”
For Barbel Pfeiffel and the others who stood with her at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, these words struck home. She says, “I will never be the same after what I have seen in these camps. And I will never be silent again, or let anyone in my family ever be silent again in the face of evil.”
I was deeply moved, when I read about this pilgrimage as I was moved when I read the stories of the children and the grandchildren of former Nazis who have settled in Israel, and who have become Jews. One of them, believe it or not, was named Hitler—or at least that was his original name. He’s descended from Adolph Hitler’s brother, Alois. Today, believe it or not, he is a professor of Jewish Studies at an Israeli university! Can you imagine what Hitler would say if he found out that his brother’s grandchild is now an observant Jew, and a Jewish scholar at one of Israel’s universities? Truth is stranger than fiction!
Rabbi Reimer asks: “I wonder what Pharaoh’s daughter would say if she could see this March of Life, and if she could meet some of the children and the grandchildren of Nazis who now live Jewish lives in Israel? I think she would say: “See! Now do you understand why I stood al ha-y’or, “over the river,” and not ba-y’or, “in the river?” Now do you understand why I felt the need to cleanse myself of the impurity of being my father’s daughter? Now do you understand why I feel the need to atone for what happened at this place?”
Today’s Torah portion is called Shemot, stemming from the root word sheym—spelled shin, mem—meaning, “name.” These 2 letters are at the core of the word neshama, “eternal soul.” We believe that the soul, or essence, of any human being is contained in his/her name. Our sages tell us that Pharaoh named his daughter Batya, meaning, bat, “daughter,” and ya, “god,” because he considered himself to be god. She sought to distance herself from that name till Gd renamed her again Batya, “The daughter of Gd,” because of her Gdly compassion.
Nature or nurture, can we overcome our nature, our DNA, our family backgrounds? At the beginning of our history with Batya and now again in our time with the grandchildren of Nazis, we experienced morally sensitive people who have stood up their evil origins. Who would believe it? Who can explain it? But it has happened. And for this, we should be grateful.
As we remember on Passover and Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, the monsters and the murderers who tried to destroy Gd’s people, we ought to also remember their descendants who have tried to redeemed and cleanse themselves from the sins of their fathers. Their stories deserve to be known for it helps to restore our faith in mankind, Gd’s children. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis