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Shemot 5770

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

“The Long Journey from Home” Rav Jonathan Bailey Placed between God’s command to Moshe to liberate His people from Egypt and Moshe’s meeting up with his brother before they both present their mission before the Elders of Bnei Yisrael, there are nine verses which culminate in the strange episode of Tzipporah’s saving of her husband through the circumcision of their son. As this section is separated from the previous and following episodes by parshiyot petuchah, we are therefore to understand it as an event in itself, self-contained, exclusive from the surrounding action around it. The first six verses read as follows: “And Moshe went and returned to Yeter his father-in-law and said to him, ‘[may] I go please and return to my brothers who are in Egypt and see if they are still alive?’ And Yitro said to Moshe, ‘go in peace’.” (4; 18) “And God said to Moshe in Midyan, ‘Go and return to Egypt, because all the people who sought your death have died.’” (19) “And Moshe took his wife and sons, placed them atop a donkey, and [he] returned to the land of Egypt; and Moshe took the staff of the Lord in his hand.” (20) “And God said to Moshe, ‘in your going to return to Egypt, see the wonders I have placed in your hand and perform them before Pharaoh; and I will strengthen his heart and he will not send the nation.’” (21) “‘and you will say to Pharaoh, ‘so says God: Yisrael is my first-born son,” (22) “and I [God] say to you: send out my son and he will worship me, [but] you will refuse to send him out, [and therefore] behold I will kill your first-born son.’” (23) The first four verses are neatly split into two independent groupings: each begins with an action by Moshe and concludes with a statement from God. More importantly, the statement from God in each ‘second’ verse is in direct response to the preceding action of Moshe in the ‘first’ verse. In verse 18, Moshe approaches his father-in-law to tell (ask) him of his departure; he tells him that he will go, return (to Egypt), and see (if his brothers are still alive). When God responds in verse 19, he ‘reminds’ Moshe to go and return (to Egypt) but omits the ‘see’ Moshe had mentioned to Yitro. In the second grouping, Moshe first takes his family and returns to Egypt and only then the Torah reports that ‘he [also] took the staff that God gave him in his hand’, conveyed almost as an afterthought (through the repetition of the word ‘took’ and the separating phrase ‘and he returned to the land of Egypt’). And with what does God immediately respond in the following verse? ‘See the wonders I have placed in your hand’ – referring specifically to the staff He had given him. The established pattern in these four introductory verses is one where Moshe expresses some kind of reluctance or hesitation regarding his Divine mission and God immediately responds to ‘correct’ it. In verse 18, Moshe tells Yitro that he will go, return and see whether his brothers are still alive – i.e. a light, basic family rediscovery mission; but God instantly corrects this idea - while Moshe is still in Midyan - telling Moshe that he is to go and return to Egypt, but the ‘seeing’ idea is left out, he’s got much bigger issues to take care of on this Divine mission. Then, in verse 20, when Moshe focuses on the taking of his family on this trip, and leaves the staff, the symbol of God’s miraculous will regarding Moshe’s task, ‘to the end’, God responds that Moshe must actively ‘see’ the wonders He has placed in his hand; Moshe must in fact pay special attention to the staff, the true focus of his mission. Verses 22 and 23 differ from the previous verses in two ways: 1) they are not introduced by an incorrect action of Moshe; and 2) they describe a message Moshe is to deliver to Pharaoh (and not a narrative of the story at hand). And regarding the verses’ message, no where before and never again in all of the subsequent warnings does God give Moshe this exact wording to convey to Pharaoh; except for this moment, God never describes His nation as his ‘first-born son’ and never warns Pharaoh with the death of his ‘first-born son’ if he refuses God’s call. (The label ‘first-born son’ (‘Bni Bechori’) is not just only found in this section of the Torah and nowhere else, but it’s used twice!). And in this unique message, God tells Moshe to tell Pharaoh that Yisrael is His ‘first-born son’ and must be freed to allow free worship of their God; and if he refuses to send the nation out, God will kill Pharaoh’s ‘first-born son’. In other words, Pharaoh’s refusal of God’s command will result in losing exactly what he has refused to give – an exact, matching consequence. The next verse states, “And it was on the way, at the inn, that God met up with [Moshe] and wanted his death.” (24) R. Hirsch points out that the word ‘va’yevakesh’ cannot mean actually ‘wanted’ because 1) God does not desire any Jews’ death and 2) if God had truly ‘wanted’ something, it would have happened! Rather, it must mean ‘favored’ his death, i.e. He understood that his death would be deserved or fitting. And taking into account the unique formula and deduced meaning of the immediately preceding verses - God’s warning to Pharaoh of matching consequences to his outright refusal - we can assume that these verses serve as an introduction to this verse (the return to the narrative), explaining that somewhere, somehow, Moshe had refused his Divine mission and therefore his death that God ‘favored’ was the logical, deserving matching consequence to this refusal (if he’s not looking to accomplish his mission, what’s the use of his continuing?) And taking into account the established pattern from the first four verses of the section, we can therefore posit that as opposed to Moshe’s previous expressions of reluctance which God ‘patiently’ addressed, having now expressed an open refusal of God’s demands of him there are no more ‘subtle’ reminders and no more second chances. But where is this refusal? All we have read is of Moshe’s departure from Midyan to Egypt; and although with some reluctance, he has most assuredly complied with God’s will! We can therefore only infer the ‘unwritten’ refusal from the prevention of its consequences. We must understand Tzipporah’s actions which successfully prevent Moshe’s death (the consequence of his ‘refusal’) in order to fully comprehend Moshe’s egregious error. The final two verses of this episode are: “And Tzipporah took a sharp stone and cut the foreskin of her son and touched it to [Moshe’s] feet; and she said, ‘because you are a [one who is] ‘wedded-by-blood’ to me’ (25) “And He backed off from [Moshe]; so [Tzipporah] said, ‘you are wedded by blood to circumcisions.” (26) Her reason for her action explains its necessity. She says that Moshe is specifically wedded by blood, because he is specifically a husband to her. Tzipporah states that it is only because he is married to her that he is steeped in blood – deserving of death. And this is because he had decided to remain in Midyan and marry a Midyanite woman, in essence declaring his desire to become a part of that culture and society, therefore not circumcising his son, in open defiance of God’s command for His children. And when he had finally departed from that life in Midyan, leaving behind that opposing culture and ‘was on the way, at an inn’ and he nonetheless failed to repair his past mistake – for this he was deserving of death. However, after completing her act, when Tzipporah witnessed God’s retreat signifying Moshe’s rescue from death, she declares that truly Moshe is ‘wedded by blood to circumcisions’. Moshe is specifically wedded by blood, because he is specifically ‘married’ to circumcisions. And if we appreciate this phrase in context of its introduction (verse 24 – the consequences of Pharaoh’s direct refusal) then it would be understood as follows: God’s mission for Moshe was to lead the liberation of his Jewish brothers from Egypt to facilitate their creation into God’s chosen nation. However, how could the very man chosen to head up this nation’s Divine future be one who does not include himself within that nation? How can a Jew, who denies the very symbol that demarcates the Jewish nation, be the one to lead that unified nation to God? Through his chosen mission, Moshe was now ‘married’ to circumcision, i.e. intimately connected to what that act symbolizes for its people; therefore, his continued rejection of that symbol in essence rejected his entire mission – and, as pointed out very clearly to him through the message he was to convey to Pharaoh - if one refuses a command, one receives the deserved response. So when Moshe continued on his way towards Egypt and had yet to actively join his children into the future nation of God’s children then it was ‘favorable’ that he would die instead – there’s no reason for him to complete the trip. But, thanks to Tzipporah’s quick response, Moshe’s children are entered into the nation of God and Moshe himself can now fully accomplish his Divine charge of bringing the rest of ‘his children’ into God’s nation. And this episode also adds a greater significance for Moshe concerning his understanding of his grave charge: just as with God’s ‘subtle’ responses to Moshe’s original expressions of reluctance (verses 19 – he wasn’t traveling to Egypt for a ‘family reunion’ but rather for the task God commanded him, and verse 20 - he needed to truly focus on the staff that will guide this Divinely ordained mission) which guided Moshe to a deeper understanding of what he was being sent to accomplish, so too, the lesson of this even more dramatic Divine ‘response’. Through this event, Moshe was shown that he was to be defined, now and forever, by his connection to ‘circumcisions’ – his role as leader for the Jewish nation; and he is ‘wedded by blood’ to this cause, so that if he ever refused or defied this charge, he was rendered obsolete and ‘deserving of death’.


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