Reconsidering Moses:
An Adoption Story

From a mosaic at one of the entrances to the Jewish Quarter, depicting various events and periods in Jewish history. This panel shows baby Moses being set adrift. Source.

By Jayne K. Guberman and Jennifer Sartori

In this Passover season, we have been reflecting on the story of the Exodus from Egypt and its central figure, Moses. As adoptive mothers and founders of the Adoption & Jewish Identity Project (AJIP), our understanding of Moses’s life is perhaps different than most. Although Moses is often held up as the paradigmatic story of Jewish adoption, the biblical narrative in fact recounts a very complicated adoption story. With its traumatic passages back and forth, from one mother and one identity to another, this foundational story of the Jewish people may resonate in complex ways with all members of the adoption triad: adoptees, their adoptive families, and their birth families.

In a recent meeting of AJIP’s advisory board, Jewish adoptees and adoptive parents talked about their reactions to the Exodus story. One adoptee spoke of the loneliness she felt as a child when hearing this story; only much later did she connect that loneliness to adoption and wondering how a parent could leave a child in a river. Another adoptee pointed to the parallels between Moses, the child of slaves adopted into the Egyptian court, and today’s transracial, transcultural, and transnational adoptees’ passage between communities with very different levels of power and privilege. And all of us were disquieted by the starkness of the choice Moses is forced to make at God’s command: returning to his original people to lead them out of slavery, at the cost of the destruction of his adoptive family and community.

Reading the story together, we found ourselves asking heart-wrenching questions. Consider the beginning. If you were adopted, would this narrative of a baby left in a basket in the Nile resonate with you personally? We thought especially of children adopted from China, where for many years the one-child policy forced parents to leave over-quota infants – often nestled into boxes – in public places, where they would be found, placed in orphanages, and, if they were “lucky,” adopted by strangers, many from a different country. Conversely, if you were a parent who had placed a child for adoption, would you see yourself in the heart-rending choice the baby’s mother Yocheved must make?

And the narrative only grows more complicated. In defiance of her father’s decree, Pharaoh’s daughter courageously rescues Moses from the Nile and, at the suggestion of the baby’s sister Miriam, hires Yocheved to nurse him. Does Pharaoh’s daughter know Yocheved is Moses’ birth mother? Does Moses – likely nursed by Yocheved until toddlerhood – know her relationship to him? Why does Pharaoh’s daughter risk raising Moses as her son in the Egyptian court? Does Moses know he’s adopted? Does he have any contact with his first family or know anything about his relationship to the enslaved Israelites? Does he identify as Egyptian?

These issues become especially pressing when the adult Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew (“one of his brethren”). After killing the Egyptian and fleeing Egypt, he is called by God (“the God of his fathers”) to bring the Israelites out of slavery. Does Moses know that the Hebrew slaves are his “brethren,” or is this the story’s narrator speaking? Does his initial reluctance to act as God commands result not just from a lack of confidence, as is generally understood, but also from a sense of loyalty to the Egyptians among whom he was raised? How does Pharaoh’s daughter feel when the child she nurtured acts as the agent of Egyptian destruction? And perhaps most importantly, how does Moses feel when he realizes that the liberation of his birth community will occur at the cost of great devastation for his adoptive community, even if that devastation is warranted by the Egyptians’ immoral actions?

The Adoption & Jewish Identity Project’s central mission is to support Jewish adoptees and their families in creating healthy personal, family, and communal identities. How, then, can we present Moses’s story in ways that feel supportive to members of the adoption triad, for whom the narrative may elicit feelings of loss, abandonment, and conflicting loyalties?

To start, we might emphasize that Yocheved, far from abandoning her newborn baby, kept him as long as she possibly could and then made a well-thought-out plan to keep him safe. Not only did she carefully waterproof the basket in which Moses would be placed, but she chose the safest spot on the river and set his sister Miriam to watch him.

We might also look to midrash, whose many stories flesh out the spare biblical narrative. We find there a compassionate portrait of Pharaoh’s daughter, who finally gets a name, Batyah – “Daughter of God” – in recognition of her courage and kindness in saving Moses. Midrash also identifies Batyah as one of the “mixed multitude” that follows Moses out of Egypt. Moses thus rebels against the Egyptian’s lack of righteousness without rejecting his tie to his adoptive mother.

These interpretations, however, can’t smooth out all the challenges this story poses for adoptees and their families. In the Jewish tradition, we are clearly meant to rejoice in Moses’ return to his “rightful” identity as a Hebrew; the Torah is, after all, the origin story of the People of Israel. But as members of the adoption triad, we know that it can’t have been be so clear-cut. Adoptees are shaped by the fullness of their experiences with their multiple families and communities; out of ambiguous beginnings, multiple loyalties, and competing identities, they must strive to construct a viable sense of self. A deeper reading of the story of Exodus acknowledges the complexities of Moses’ experience; born an Israelite and raised as an Egyptian, he, like many adoptees, moves back and forth between worlds.

Fortunately, Passover is a time when we celebrate questions, and ours is a tradition that encourages us to create new interpretations of ancient texts. Indeed, in an age of increasing Jewish diversity and boundary-crossing, reading the story of Moses through an adoption lens may lend richness to our understanding of this foundational text and a more nuanced sense of the source of his greatness. Why did God choose Moses as his partner in redeeming the ancient Israelites from Egyptian bondage and creating from them a great nation? Perhaps the roots of his leadership lay in the very complexities of his story, and the composite nature of his identity may be what ultimately allowed him to speak with authenticity and authority.

Jayne K. Guberman, PhD, and Jennifer Sartori, PhD, are Co-Directors of the Adoption & Jewish Identity Project, which supports Jewish adoptees and their families in creating healthy personal, family, and communal identities and advocates for an inclusive Jewish community that is fully welcoming to adoptees. They are also working on a book about identity formation among adoptees in the American Jewish community, based on extensive research with adult Jewish adoptees and Jewish adoptive parents.