It’s All Good — But Is It?


There is an anomaly at the beginning of Shemot’s Chapter 2, where the Book of Exodus really begins. (Chapter 1 is a prologue, a transition from Genesis). “V’eleh shemot” (“These are the names”) but there are no names! Bnai Yisrael (the Children of Israel) once had names, an identity, that’s clear from the first chapter where they are identified, not only by name, but “ish u-beito” — with his “bayit,” his “house,” a metaphor in the Chumash for community. But in the second chapter, we have lost our names, our identity. No one is named: An unnamed couple has an unnamed baby under the reign of an unnamed Pharaoh whose unnamed daughter pulls the unnamed baby out of the river. That baby, the hero of the story, is only named “Moshe” by Pharaoh’s daughter after “the child grew” [Exodus 2:10-11].

As Rabbi David Silber notes, no names means no identity. Moshe finally finds his identity at the sneh (the burning bush) and understands his mission: It is not to lead Bnai Yisrael to the Land of Israel—he is unable to do so, and he does not—but to provide an identity for the Israelites, a community, a bayit.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:25 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23
(Ashkenaz); Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Havdalah: 5:29 p.m.

But the grim beginning of Shemot is redeemed by one word. At the beginning of the Moses narrative there is the curious use of a single word, and the exploration of this word illumines the larger narrative. That word is “tov” [Ex. 2:2]. We know what the word tov means in modern Hebrew; any first-grader will tell you that it means “good.” In most translations, tov is rendered as “good” or “goodly.”

We know the story. “And the woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him for three months” [Exodus 2:2]. Moshe is born, three months prematurely, his mother sees that he is “tov” (whatever that means) and hides him and cares for him for the three premature months. Rashi, citing the Midrash, says that “tov” here means that he was born “tov,” Moshe was born circumcised.

A hint. “Tov” does not mean “good.” As my old colleague Ben Wattenberg used to say, “The bad news is that the good news isn’t all good.”

First, we recall a basic principle in Hebrew, in Semitic languages in general: Words always start out life as a concrete something, and only later take on a conceptual meaning, or become an idea. The original meaning of tov is not “good.”

The meaning is something more basic, something concrete. In order to determine the meaning of tov, we seek where else the word is found, and in what context. In the Creation narrative of the Six Days, tov is found six times. “Va-yar’ Elokim ki tov,” “God saw that it was ‘tov,’” and so on. The King James Version translates these verses, “And God saw that it was good.”

But that’s not what tov means in the Creation story. The original, biblical, concrete meaning of tov is more along the lines of “well-formed,” “well-wrought,” “well-crafted,” and these meanings make sense in the context of Creation. “Good” is conceptual, value-laden and suggests values that play no part in the early biblical narrative. Tov as “good” is a later understanding of the word, perhaps derived from its original meaning but it is not the original meaning.

We now look at our text in Shemot. Moses is born prematurely and his mother sees that he is “tov.” Following the Creation narrative, Rabbi Silber suggests that in the context of the story, a better translation is “viable.” The word, in its original meaning, is about physical viability. And, recalling the halachic norm, a boy cannot be circumcised unless he is physically viable, unless he is “tov.”

There is another deeper dimension to this story, and that is the story of another circumcision [Ex. 4:24-26], surely one of the strangest narratives in the Chumash, the incident at the caravanserai in which someone is circumcised. Who is being circumcised? (A child identified only as Zipporah’s son?) The foreskin is cast at whose legs? (Moses?) Whatever the meaning of the narrative, my sense is that this story is connected to the rules of brit milah learned by Abraham in Genesis 17. Our narrative may serve as a bridge between Genesis 17 and the Korban Pesach, the paschal sacrifice [Ex. 12:1-28], without which the Exodus from Egypt cannot take place.

The Korban Pesach marks the beginning of the Jewish people, and circumcision is a prerequisite for entering Jewish peoplehood. The strange three-verse narrative in Shemot is a covenantal moment, connecting the two other covenantal pillars.

It’s all tov! 

Jerome Chanes, a frequent contributor, is the author of “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism Through the Ages.”