2003Perhaps one the most obscure episodes in the entire Torah is found in this week's parsha. God has just spoken to Moses at the burning bush and instructed him to go to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go. Moses takes his family and begins to travel down to Egypt. Our episode takes place during Moses' journey back to Egypt.
"It came to pass at the inn that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!" And when He let him alone, she added, "A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision."
These verses are out of context and very troubling. You cannot get more direct contact with God than when Moses is addressed at the burning bush. God tells him what he needs to do and gives him the tools to do this. Even when Moses has his doubts, God throws in some great "coming attractions" to show Moses that everything will be all right. And yet when Moses sets out to perform the will of God, we are suddenly hit with the verse" ... the Lord met him, and sought to kill him."
Your Exodus Navigator
1. Whom is the Lord meeting?
2. Who is God trying to kill, and why?
3. Why does Zipporah circumcise her son?
4. Why does this story appear here?
Traditional midrashim have suggested that God was trying to kill Moses because he forgot to circumcise his son. And even the absence of one mitzvah can delay the redemption of the whole Jewish people. Nice try but that doesn't work.... at least for me.
On a level this verse works as a timeless stop sign that says no matter how many years you have spent on this parsha, you need to wrestle with this one once again. And I think it works as follows: Life is messy and even when we think we have the "plan" there are forces at work that are going to frustrate that "plan" if not kill you. Even Moses, our greatest teacher, loses his way and collapses, as he is about to embark on his great mission. The only thing that saves his life is (Moses' best friend) Zipporah's quick thinking. Zipporah circumcises Eliezer and throws the foreskin on Moses and declares he is a bridegroom of blood. And God, or the angel, retreats.
Unlike Moses, most of us are not privy to know of what it is that God exactly wants from us or what God plans for us. God's plan for us is called Providence (which is of course a city in Rhode Island, but that's another story). And both the forces that lead us to succeed and lead to our failures (if not our demise) are found within trying to figure out God's will through Torah. This is both messy and paradoxical, but it could lead us to Sinai and ultimately Israel. Zvi Kolitz, writing on the philosophy of Joseph B. Soloveitchick, said: "The religious life doesn't lead to paradise it leads to paradox." I believe that this quote ultimately helps us get an understanding of where our life and where Torah have a wonderful unsettling yet very sobering meeting point.
Prepared by Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Executive Director, Brown Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Shemot at MyJewishLearning.com.