The Torah in Parashat Shemot tells the story of Moshe’s miraculous survival as an infant, his mother’s successful efforts to save her child from Pharaoh’s decree of death upon all newborn Israelite boys. She placed Moshe in a basket in the river, where he was discovered by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter. Moshe’s sister, Miriam, who was standing nearby and watched the princess lift Moshe from the water, offered to find an Israelite woman to nurse the adopted infant, and the princess agreed. Miriam promptly ran home and brought her mother to nurse Moshe (2:8-9).
Rashi, based on the Gemara (Sota 12b), famously writes that Miriam made this suggestion after the princess’ unsuccessful attempt to find an Egyptian nursemaid. She tried many different nursemaids, but Moshe refused to nurse from them. The Gemara explains that this foreshadowed Moshe’s unique prophetic stature, as the mouth which would speak directly to the Almighty would not drink milk as an infant from a woman who did not belong to his nation.
It has been suggested that this description of Moshe symbolically depicts the nature of Am Yisrael’s condition in exile. Like Moshe in the palace, our nation has, at various times, been forced to live in foreign quarters, in foreign surroundings, among foreign peoples. We, like Pharaoh, were dependent upon the grace of righteous gentiles – such as Pharaoh’s daughter – who welcomed us and enabled us to live, grow and prosper in their lands. Moshe’s refusal to drink milk – to receive his basic sustenance – from anybody but an Israelite woman symbolizes the need to look only to our roots and origins to receive our basic spiritual sustenance. Even as we participate in the host society, ensure to obey its laws, and respect and appreciate all the blessings it offers us, we must always insist on drawing our “milk” – our fundamental values, beliefs, principles and ideals – from our own “mother,” from our tradition. The fact that Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest leader, teacher and prophet our nation ever had, was raised in Pharaoh’s palace demonstrates that we can spiritually succeed and prosper even when we are “raised” on foreign soil and in foreign cultures. This depends, however, on our insistence on “drinking” only the “milk” of our ancestors, on looking only to our own sources and our own value system for our core ideals and principles.