I remember the baby in a basket, sailing down a river. The entire movie about Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt and how the Ten Commandments came to be, and all I recall is that tiny floating baby. I was about eight when it was set to air. I was staying the night with my mom’s parents and I felt a buzz of anticipation to have a date that evening with my grandparents in front of the television.
As show time approached, I was belly down on the carpet. Fresh martinis clinked from the sofa behind me.
My excitement soon drooped like the saggy robes worn by the characters on screen, kicked away like the dust from their sandaled feet. The entire thing looked so old-timey and weird. What was this stupid story? Once the baby got old and grew a beard, I lost interest and wandered out of the room.
But the first few moments of the film are seared into my memory.The scene, as I recollect, goes like this: a woman sets her basket/baby into the river and lets it float away. The pained expression on her face reveals the difficulty of her decision. The baby will most likely drown but she deems this option safer than the baby staying with her. She’ll take the risk for the slim chance of the baby’s survival. Several frames focus on the baby up close, chubby and oblivious. The baby doesn’t have long; the basket is no better than a sieve. I was riveted; I had such high hopes for this movie. A woman standing at the bank downstream spots the basket. That this stranger is big-hearted enough to fish out the baby is almost too good to be true. That she turns out to be royalty and raises the orphan in the palace is the most surprising in the series of unlikely incidents that leads to the baby’s survival. Then the kid grows up in a montage of, like, two minutes and what I deemed the best part is over.
It’s not just me who got hung up on the baby. I’ve since spoken to others who confess that when they were younger and first exposed to the Moses story, the floating baby part captured their imaginations too. It makes me wonder if this aspect of the account resonates so profoundly because it speaks to our own survival stories: each of us here against all odds, the chances of our individual conceptions perhaps even slimmer than those of baby Moses being scooped from a river by a queen. We may not be able to grasp the improbability of our own lives—the chain of events leading to each of us being here too complex to fathom—but in the Moses story, the miracle of survival is writ large.
When I arrive in L.A., the synagogues, who appear to all be on about the same page in their weekly readings of the Torah, are mid-way through Exodus. The rabbis are going over the plot points covered in the movie about Moses and the Ten Commandments that I was too immature to understand. At long last, I get a second chance to discover what’s so great about the grown-up Moses. The first service I attend, we read about the people waiting at the base of Mount Sinai for Moses to return. These are the people who had been slaves in Egypt. Moses leads them to freedom with the guidance of God, who weakens the resolve of the Egyptians through a series of plagues and then parts the Red Sea for a speedy on-foot escape; the waters then flood the Egyptian army. When the people make it to the base of the mountain, Moses tells them to wait patiently while he goes to the peak to meet with God. Sounds straightforward to me, I thought, as the reading concluded. What could go wrong?