The story of Shemot is a story of miracles. There are the miracles of the plagues. There are the miracles that God does for Moses in order to convince him to lead the people out of Egypt. But it many ways, the story of yetziat mitzrayim hinges on two miracles of a more human sort.

The first miracle is that of Bat-Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues baby Moshe from the Nile and raises him as a son. “And she opened the basket and saw the child, and behold the lad was crying. Vatachmol alav, And she had mercy on him, and said, ‘This is a child of the Hebrews’” (Ex. 2:6). This is actually a miraculous moment. Here the daughter of Pharaoh, who has decreed that every male Israelite child is to be thrown into the Nile, violates her father’s decree. Where her father had ordered that the boys be thrown into the Nile, Bat-Paro draws Moses baby out—and this becomes the basis of his name: “ki min hamayim mishitihu, for I drew forth form the water” (2:10).

What is so remarkable about Bat-Paro’s action is that, in spite of her awareness of just who Moses is and what the law requires, her empathy and compassion take precedence. To appreciate the magnitude this act, we need to look at the only other time in the Torah when the word chemla, compassion, is used. In Deuteronomy ch. 13, the Torah commands that “when one of your brothers… or one of your kinsmen who is like family to you comes to you in secret saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you nor your ancestors have known… lo tachmol alav, Show now mercy to him.” Instead, you are to put him to death.

In this case, our compassion is normal. The Torah recognizes that our tendency would be to show mercy on a family member—and therefore the Torah has to tell us specifically that we need to submerge our compassion. In the case of Bat-Paro, it is precisely the inverse: here is a child of the Hebrews, someone she should leave to die in the Nile! Miraculously, when she opens the ark, she senses the presence of the shechina, the divine presence, and her mercy is awakened. Without this moment, Moses never comes to be. It is a critical moment in the narrative, one of the great miracles of the Exodus.

A second “minor” miracle of the Exodus story also involves a moment of recognition: “And Moses was a shepherd… And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire from the bush. And he saw, and behold, the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed? And God saw that he turned aside to look, and called out to him, ‘Moses, Moses,’ and he said, ‘Here I am’” (Ex. 3:1-4).

What is so remarkable? If we read closely, we see that Moses’s turning aside to look is not to be taken for granted. He sees the bush, and then he decides to act: “I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed?” Moses here demonstrates another small but powerful miracle, the miracle of curiosity. He could have kept on walking. He could have come up with some explanation in his mind. But instead he decides to turn and look. And when he does, God calls out to him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like Bat-Paro, Moses here enacts a small but essential miracle of the Exodus story: If he doesn’t turn aside to look, the rest of the story doesn’t happen. No matter how much firepower God will ultimately display in freeing the Israelites, these two small moments are themselves essential miracles in the narrative of liberation from slavery.

For us, these minor miracles of Bat-Paro and Moshe are perhaps the most important. We live in an age when public miracles like those of the Ten Plagues are hidden from view. But all of us have the capacity to show mercy and compassion. All of us have the ability to see the essential humanity of people in pain—whether or not they are our own children, or even those of our people. All of us have the power to turn aside and look, to be curious, to inquire, and to take action. When we do so, we bring the shechina into the world.

The liberation from Egypt is certainly the work of God. But as Bat-Paro and Moshe remind us, seemingly small human actions are no less important in the story. May we learn from their example.

Shabbat shalom.

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There are a lot of miracles in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which we begin reading this week with Parshat Shemot. There are of course the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Sea, the provision of manna. But there are two miracles that really ground the entire narrative: the miracle of the burning bush, and the miracle of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The burning bush is an obvious miracle: though it burned, “the bush was not consumed.” There is obvious symbolism in the miracle: that God’s promise was not extinguished in the midst of slavery in Egypt; that the human spirit of the Israelites was not extinguished either. Yet the greatest miracle of the story, it seems to me, is that Moses noticed: ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ (Ex. 3:3) What would have happened if Moses hadn’t noticed? The rest of the story may not have happened.

Yet Moses’ entire life was rooted in another act of noticing and acting, that of Pharaoh’s daughter: “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him.” (Ex. 2:5-6) The pity of Pharaoh’s daughter in this scene is remarkable, as her father had declared that any Hebrew baby boy was to be killed. Yet her sense of pity overtook her. (Rashi comments that upon opening the basket she beheld the Divine presence. Perhaps that presence is most acutely felt in beholding a crying and helpless child.) Had she not acted in this way, we have to wonder how the story would have been different.

Though Exodus is an epic adventure of grand acts, national politics, and divine warfare, it ultimately finds its deepest expression in the small but miraculous acts of ordinary people doing ordinary, yet extraordinary, things. And in particular, the miracles of the Exodus–the overturning of an entire world order based on ‘might makes right’–find their roots in the miracle of the human capacity, our capacity, to notice and to act.

Shabbat shalom.