Yosef Zavadia was only nine years old when his mother sent him across the Red Sea to Israel. The Kessim, the Ethiopian religious leaders, like Yosef’s father saw an uncertain future for their community given the oppression they faced. It was the 1950s. Sending a few of the boys to the land of Israel on their own was their best hope to ensure a better future.
Sometimes, the best hope a mother has for keeping her children safe is letting them go.
At Passover time, we are meant to see ourselves as though we ourselves went forth from Egypt. Most years, this sharpens my vision on the liberation narrative; this year, I find myself focused on the story of Moses and the harrowing choice his mother, Yocheved, made to place him in a basket and float him on the river.
A tiny, helpless baby, Moses was years away from being able to care for himself. But to keep him at home was not an option. Pharaoh had decreed that all male Israelite babies be killed. Though Yocheved did not know what would happen to him, the only possibility for survival was to leave him to an uncertain future.
In the natural course, mothers only let their young children go when staying is desperately dangerous. In recent years, we have seen far too many of these stories.
Since the war in Ukraine began, mothers have been putting their children on planes on their own. These mothers do not know what will happen to their children once they let them go. But their goals are not dissimilar to those I had when my children were young. As reported by Ynet, 12-year-old Esther Valchouk’s mother, who could not leave her elderly mother in Ukraine, sent her daughter to Israel because there she would be safe.
Similarly, mothers in Central America, fearing gang violence and financial ruin, headed to the border with the United States even when they might be separated from their children. When Kabul fell to the Taliban, mothers tossed their children over the wall at the airport.
What must Yocheved have been thinking and feeling as she gave Moses over to Miriam to put in the basket and float on the Nile? The physical separation and the worry must have broken her heart. There was no guarantee that Moses would survive, let alone thrive, as every mother hopes her children will do. Nonetheless, she took a chance because it was the best she could do. The rabbis teach that it was on the merit of the women that the people of Israel were redeemed from Egypt. The women, in particular, Yocheved and Miriam, were brave enough to take radical action on the slim chance that the future would be different. And that faith was everything.
The Bible tells us what happened to Moses. He was rescued from his basket in the water by the daughter of Pharaoh and taken to grow up in the palace. He went on to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Some stories say that Yocheved was able to be his nursemaid while growing up at court. We know that Moses reunited with his sister Miriam and brother Aaron. Unfortunately, we are never explicitly told that Yocheved was able to know that the choice she made ultimately proved worthwhile and brought him to a life of safety and possibility that would have been impossible had she held on.
For Yosef Zavadia, growing up as an orphan in a country where he did not speak the language, where his skin color made him stand out, was very difficult. In an interview with Ethiopian Israeli-American filmmaker Avishai Mekonen, Zavadia spoke about how he often wondered why his parents sent him away. He felt abandoned. Later in life Zavadia spoke to his father about this choice, but he never asked his mother.
This Passover, as we return to the story of the Exodus, let us think about these women and the impossible choices they have to make. On March 22nd, shortly after Yosef Zavadia left this earth, the Prime Minister of Israel wrote his family a letter. In it the Prime Minister praised Zavadia for his lifetime of work on behalf of bringing Ethiopian Jews to freedom. As Mekonen’s current movie project Heros explains, when Zavadia reached adulthood, like Moses, he returned home, risked his life, paid a high price but eventually was one of those who led the modern exodus of Ethiopian Jews. Painful as it must have been, the first step towards redemption, was letting go.