When Moshe is born, his mother tries to hide him. But after three months and no longer being able to hide him, the Torah describes that “she took for him a reed basket and smeared it with clay and tar; she placed the boy into it and placed it among the reeds at the bank of the river.” The outside of the basket was tar, the inside was clay (Rashi).
Why does the Torah specify what the basket was covered with? Rashi explains that this is coming to teach us that tar was specifically not put on the inside so that “that tzaddik [Moshe] would not smell the foul odor of tar.”
Sure, tar is not pleasant to smell, but at this critical moment where Moshe’s life is at stake, does he really need that? At that moment his very life is in jeopardy—focus on saving his life! Does an enhancement in his life saving journey really matter?
Rav Chaim Mintz explains that the Torah is coming to reveal to us the way Hashem acts. Since Hashem is perfect and complete, so too all that He does is perfect and complete. So He put it in the heart of Moshe’s mother to cover the inside with clay instead of tar, so that Moshe wouldn’t be pained by the smell of tar (Etz Hachayim, Shemot).
Despite Hashem being involved in a “great” act of saving a life, nevertheless His attention wasn’t solely on Moshe’s pure survival but is also focused on the relatively insignificant details that would benefit Moshe, such as not inhaling an unpleasant smell.
We can learn from here that when involved in great acts of helping others, to also expand our attention and care to the “smaller” details that would bring comfort and benefit to them.
Pharaoh tells the Jewish midwives—Shifra and Puah—to put the baby boys they deliver to death. Of course, they did not listen and instead put themselves at risk to save these babies. But their assistance wasn’t limited to solely saving the lives of those children. They did much more than that.
Shifra and Puah were really Yocheved (Moshe’s mother) and Miriam (Moshe’s sister). Yocheved was called Shifra as Shifra is derived from the word that means to enhance and improve, for she would straighten the limbs of the child after birth, or alternatively, she would clean the blood off of them. Miriam was called Puah because she would coo to the child, make sweet sounds and engage in playful behavior with the child.
One can wonder, is it necessary for someone in such a position to focus on these relatively insignificant details? They are on an apparently dangerous and crucial mission to save lives; Are these enhancements and cooing important at this time? Moreover, even if we grant this, why aren’t Shifra and Puah at least given a name that captures their outstanding sacrifice in saving these Jewish children? Isn’t that much greater than playing with them and beautifying them? Yet, it’s these names—Shifra and Puah and that which they represent—that they are known as, which seemingly indicates that the acts they did for those babies, in a certain sense, reveal their greatness more than the sacrifice of saving the lives of the children. Why?
An outstanding act of helping another can indeed show one’s greatness. But what really shows that someone has excelled in the area of caring for and helping others? Perhaps if their assistance is complete, similar to the way Hashem’s caring for Moshe was, where the main objective of saving the life wasn’t the only goal, but also to care about the relatively smaller details. So too, perhaps Shifra and Puah placing an emphasis on those details reveals their level of care and of being other-centered, so that their acts of helping were wholesome and complete. So the greatness of Shifra and Puah is revealed by their names—from their giving attention to the smaller details that may not be strictly needed for the babies’ survival, but would provide comfort and benefit.
Hashem tells Moshe to redeem Bnei Yisrael and take them out of Mitzrayim, but surprisingly Moshe isn’t too quick to accept the mission. He said to Hashem, “Please, my Lord, send through whomever You will send,” and Rashi explains, Moshe meant that Aharon should be the man for the job.
Moshe was concerned that Aharon would be slighted upon seeing that he didn’t get the offer but his younger brother did, so Moshe initially refused.
Is Aharon being slighted and pained by Moshe’s nomination so significant that Moshe doesn’t hurriedly grab the crucial opportunity to save and emancipate his brethren, who are steeped in the shackles of slavery? Bnei Yisrael are experiencing excruciating pains from the labor in Egypt, hundreds of children are being killed a day, and now there is the potential to leave all that behind, and head towards Matan Torah, Eretz Yisrael, etc. Moshe is willing to turn it down just so his brother wouldn’t potentially suffer some emotional pain?
Rav Nosson Wachtfogel explains that since Mashiach’s role when ushering in the redemption is to raise up and enhance the people, if he is not able to raise up and benefit every single person—even if just one person remains lacking—then he is unable to be the Mashiach. Hence, Moshe thought that since he is unable to ensure that Aharon wouldn’t be envious and pained, then Moshe isn’t fit to be the savior for Am Yisrael since he doesn’t fit the criteria. For this reason, he initially refused, until Hashem guaranteed that Ahraon wouldn’t be hurt, but just the opposite—he will be happy for you (Noam Hamussar, Shemot).
We perhaps see from here that an essential feature of Mashiach and his role won’t be just taking care of the major things—of saving and redeeming us out of exile; He will also cover the minor, relatively insignificant details so that his helping us will be complete and wholesome.
We can learn from our parsha that giving of one’s care and attention to the smaller details that would benefit the other, even when involved in helping that person on a significantly greater scale, is something that Hashem does, what Mashiach will do and like Shifra and Puah—a level that we too have the potential to strive towards and exemplify.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work