Helping professionals urge us to be proactive in our lives. “Don’t wait until you have to react,” they insist. “Act now while you can shape and even determine the nature of your actions as you choose.”
Sometimes, however, we have little choice but to react rather than be proactive. Life doesn’t always allow us to anticipate situations. Sometimes we just have to respond — and sometimes it can be quite difficult to respond.
Imagine how unsettling and unnerving it can be to react to conditions that haven’t yet occurred but that one imminently anticipates. Such was the situation that Amram and Yocheved, Moses’ parents, confronted, according to a midrash based on this week’s parshah, Shemot.
The rabbis imagine that Moses’ parents were married at the time Pharaoh gave instruction to the Hebrew midwives to kill every newborn Israelite male (Exodus 1:15-16). Only after this encounter between Pharaoh and the midwives does the Torah explicitly inform us of the marriage of Amram (“a certain man of the house of Levi”) and Yocheved (“a Levite woman”) (Exodus 2:1).
With this background in mind, the rabbis imagine that, in the wake of Pharaoh’s instruction to kill newborn males, Amram and Yocheved separate to preclude the birth of any sons. Miriam, their daughter, “comes to the rescue” to ensure the eventual birth of her brother Moses.
“Rabbi Judah ben Zevina said that Amram followed the counsel of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation. When Amram saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, ‘If it is a boy, kill him (Exodus 1:16),’ he said: In vain do we labor. He arose and divorced his wife. All of the Israelite men followed suit and divorced their wives. Miriam said to her father: Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh decreed only against the males, whereas you have decreed against the males and females. … In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is doubt as to whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in your case, though you are righteous, it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled. … (In response to what Miriam had said) Amram arose and took his wife back, and they all arose and took their wives back.” (Talmud Sotah 12a)
What was Miriam saying to her father? In effect, she said: By divorcing my mother, you, Father, are acting definitively for all time on the basis of just a possibility. Perhaps the possibility is a probability, but you have no control over Pharaoh’s actions. You can only control your own actions. You have acted to end the possibility of new Israelite life — a decree even harsher than the one Pharaoh offered! Who knows? Pharaoh’s decree might never be fulfilled!
Of course, none of us will ever face circumstances remotely resembling the ones put forth in our parshah and in this midrash, which seeks to shape our understanding of the story. Nonetheless, the lessons of this midrash may speak to us even when the particular circumstances described in it do not.
We ought to strive to act in proactive ways. But when that is not possible and we must react, before we act, we had best stop for a moment, think and ask ourselves, “Am I responding to a real situation, one that has actually occurred, or am I responding only to a possibility?”
If the answer is the latter, you should resist your desire to act, take some time to think and reflect before moving forward.
Rabbi Neil Sandler is the senior rabbi of Ahavath Achim Synagogue.