What An iPhone And The River Nile Have In Common [Parshat Shemot By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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 – And Pharaoh commanded all his people, saying, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile, and every .  daughter you shall allow to live.” — Ex. 1:22

Mother Nature is providential.  She gives us twelve years to develop a love for our children before turning them into teenagers — William Galvin

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years — Mark Twain

 I came across an article this week about a special “contract” written by a mother for her teenage son to sign. Her son, aged thirteen, had been begging her to buy him an iPhone for months and she had finally agreed. Along with the phone and its service provider contract his mother had written her own 18 point agreement involving appropriate usage of the new phone, breach of which would result in confiscation.

The contract reminds her son, Gregory, that his Mum will retain access to his password, that it cannot be used to be hurtful or deceitful to others, nor can it be used for “inappropriate material,” whether searching the web or using the built in camera. The list of don’ts is long and the article has picked up quite a bit of attention, with many negative comments about the mother’s restrictive behavior and poor teenager-rearing abilities.

For my part, it was amusing to read, and since it was actually published by the mother was probably very tongue-in-cheek, but I did find the readers’ responses interesting. It seems to be almost a crime nowadays for parents to try and give their children a framework of acceptable behavior, a guide to what is appropriate and what is not.

Isn’t that what parents are meant to do? To instill in their children a sense of right and wrong, an ability to sometimes say no, to swim against the current when they feel the current is taking them in the wrong direction …

In this week’s Torah reading, the beginning of the Book of  Shemot, we read how Pharaoh called in the Jewish midwives and instructed them to kill the Hebrew males at birth. His astrologers had advised him that a Jewish savior was about to be born and death of all newborn males was the only way to prevent that happening. When the courageous midwives do not fulfill this task, the security forces are brought in, performing house to house searches and throwing the young children to their deaths in the River Nile. Moses’ survival against all odds is one of the most famous of all Bible stories.

There is a fascinating explanation of Pharaoh’s decree that “Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile,” which looks a little deeper than the basic translation of the text. The River Nile was the main source of life for the Egyptian nation, the main artery which coursed through the land providing life and sustenance to its inhabitants. In a way the Nile symbolizes Egypt and all it represented.

Throwing the children into the Nile” can be seen as a metaphor for a society where all the youth are forced into following a common culture, where parents and educators are powerless to encourage difference. Sadly we don’t need to travel far to find entire countries where the Jewish population is still struggling to find their Jewish identity, to recover from decades of their youth being “thrown into the Nile” of local culture, beliefs and identity, whilst having their own precious heritage proscribed on pain of death. Few and far between were the parents who risked life and limb to save their children from the Nile, to hide them in a basket hidden in the reeds and teach them that they were Jews, with a past and future, with an illustrious lineage and a glorious future. The Nile was also worshiped because it provided a livelihood for the people, precious water for crop irrigation. Sometimes we fall into that trap too, of  “worshiping” what we assume to be our source of life and income, and forgetting that the real provider is the One Above.

Like Gregory’s mother in the story above, we have a responsibility to ensure that our children do not automatically follow their peers without questioning whether it is right or wrong. We have a responsibility to make our children aware that they will have choices in life and often they alone will have to make the decision, right or wrong, black, white or grey. They alone will have to decide whether to agree or disagree, whether to look at something inappropriate or to look away, whether to stand up to help another or whether to keep their head down and walk away.  As Jews we need to look to Moses’ mother too, at how she protected her innocent young newborn from the influence of the Nile, enabling him to fulfil his full potential later in life, never forgetting his Creator.

Wherever we live, we need to be aware what the local “Nile” is, and to figure out how much we can be immersed in it without being swept away. Once we have those boundaries figured out, not only will we and our children be safe, but we can contribute to making positive changes in society, making it better for everyone around us. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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