by Rabbi Phyllis Berman

Pharaoh’s Family Separation Policy: A Midrash

This midrash was written in a wonderful class taught by Sabrina Sojourner at the National Havurah Institute in July 2018.  We had just gotten home from a trip, organized by the American Federation of Teachers to include religious leaders, teachers, and activists to Tornillo, Texas, on the border between El Paso and Mexico, where children, separated from their parents after crossing the border, were being held by our government.

From “locals” who live in El Paso, we were told that in Tornillo, where our government has just shipped thousands of migrant children to tent cities in the dark of night along with the detention center that has housed “kidnapped” children for months now, the drinking water is tainted, much like the water in Flint, MI. As Michael Moore said in his movie Fahrenheit 11/9, that’s one way to get rid of people you don’t want in your country…

We weren’t allowed to visit and comfort the children or to leave for them the stuffed animals, toiletries, paper, pens, and crayons that the AFT had assembled.  Horrified and outraged by the cruelty of separating children from parents, we came home to Philadelphia and, with a group of friends, organized the (unfortunately temporary) closure of the Philadlephia ICE office, one of the cruelest in this country, for which we got arrested.


I am Yocheved, wife of Amram, who is the son of Levi, who was one of the Jacob’s 12 sons. I married into a priestly family though my grandmother was Dinah—who was no slouch herself! When Levi and his brothers and sisters and father first came down from Canaan to Egypt during the big famine many years ago, we were treated royally because one of my husband’s great-uncles, Joseph, was already a big shot here in Pharaoh’s administration. The family was given the best land for our animals — would you believe that the Egyptians didn’t raise sheep and goats themselves? — But they were very good farmers and knew how to put aside extra grain for the years when nothing much was growing on the land. Life was comfortable then: we were together, we had food to eat, we felt safe, we saw ourselves as Egyptians, we had a good relationship with Pharaoh, and I was the proud mother of a daughter, Miriam, and a son, Aaron.

But the wheel of fortune turns, as it always does. Our beloved Pharaoh died, and a new one was appointed by the wrong people, for the wrong reasons. The new ruler was very thin-skinned and self-absorbed and pretty insecure. He felt threatened by anyone who hadn’t lived here for several generations, thinking we were traitors, terrorists, diseased, even carriers of dangerous drugs, and committed only to our own families which he called gangs. He called us migrants, and was afraid that, because our families were so large — we love children and we love to feed them! — that we’d soon outnumber the “real” Egyptians.

So he decreed the most horrifying rule: any girls we birthed could live but baby boys would be killed.

I love both of my children, not one better than the other —and I really love my husband. He’s a tender and a generous lover, and though many of our relatives refrained from making love to avoid birthing boys, that wasn’t the way it was between me and Amram. I was worried when I found myself pregnant again and filled with a mixture of delight and dread when, at the birth of the baby, I saw that it was another son.

I took him to my breast and nursed him, as I had with the older two, and he was a quiet baby, perhaps because, as the midwives pointed out, something was wrong with his tongue, making it hard for him to make sounds even though he had no trouble nursing at my breast. But the dreaded day came as he got too big for me to hide him under my shawl. How could any mother bear to let her child be ripped from her to be killed?  

Instead, and this was almost as painful, my daughter Miriam suggested we put him into a little boat to sail down the Nile with the prayer that some compassionate Egyptian family would find him and raise him.

I will never forget that day: not to know if he would live or die; not to know if he would be found and loved or abandoned and despised. Those were the thoughts in my mind-heart, but my breasts screamed with milk that no one would suckle.

You may know something about how this story worked out, but I — I will never forget the pain and terror of having that beloved child, my youngest, my last baby, torn from my arms. Even the uncertain hope that he might live and that I might have him in my arms once again could not dull the trauma of our separation.

Blog footer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine