When Hashem Tried to Kill Moshe
When Hashem Tried to Kill Moshe
By Rav Yaakov Beasley
week, we begin Sefer Shemot, and we learn about the transformation of
Yaakov's family into a nation. The
first chapter begins with the description of B'nei Ysrael's long and slow
descent into servitude in
In Shemot 4:18, Moshe prepares to
leave Midian, where he had lived for forty years, to return to
Moshe went and returned to Yitro his father-in-law and said unto him, "Let me
go, I pray you, and return unto my brethren who are in
And Hashem said to Moshe, "When you return to
And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that Hashem met him and sought to kill him. Then Tzipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast [it] at his feet, and said, "Surely a bloody husband [are] you to me." So he let him go; then she said, "A bloody husband [you are], because of the circumcision." (Shemot 4:18-26)
QUESTIONS AND AMBIGUITIES
a doubt, this is one of the Torah's most enigmatic stories. How is it that just when Moshe is
appointed as Hashem's representative, Hashem desires to kill
him? Has Moshe in some way
angered God? Has he become undesirable so soon? What has he done since the
episode of the burning bush to arouse God's wrath? Why would God persuade Moshe
to be the leader of
One of the keys to deciphering this section is identifying the victim of the attack. "And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that Hashem met him and sought to kill him." Who is the "him"? The verse leaves us with no clues; in fact, its obscure wording allows for a wide range of opinions among even the earliest sources. Given that Moshe is saved by Tzipporah's initiative through circumcising their son, we can assume that the major issue at hand is circumcision. This is the approach of the Talmud (Nedarim 31b-32a):
It was taught: R. Yehoshua ben Korcha said: Great is circumcision, for despite all the meritorious deeds performed by Moshe our teacher, when he displayed apathy towards milah, none of his merits protected him, as it is written, "And the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him."
Yossi said: God forbid that Moshe should have been apathetic towards
circumcision! Rather, Moshe thought, "If I circumcise my son and immediately go
forth [on my mission], there will be a risk to the child's health, as it states
(Bereishit 34:25), 'And it was on the third day, when they were sore.'
How can I circumcise him and delay three days? Did God not issue me with a
directive, 'Go, return to
R. Shimon Ben Gamliel said: It was not Moshe Rabbeinu whom the angel sought to kill; it sought to kill the baby. It states, "You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!" This is said about the baby.
Summarizing the opinions, we see disagreement as to both the victim and the sin. One opinion sees the angel as coming to attack Moshe, while another sees the baby as the potential victim. R. Yehoshua ben Korcha suggests that the sin was Moshe ignoring his obligation to circumcise his son due of apathy, while R. Yossi rejects this presentation, suggesting that Moshe was allowed to delay the circumcision of his son. Once he "occupied himself with issues of lodgings," however, he was then found guilty in some way of procrastination and delay.
son did Moshe fail to circumcise?
The Torah informed us about the birth of his first son before he
encountered Hashem at the burning bush: "She bore him a son, whom he
named Gershom, for he said, 'I have been a stranger in a foreign land'" (2:22).
In our parsha, Moshe is traveling with Tzipporah and their "sons" - more
than one child. The rationale for the name of his second child appears only
later, in Parshat Yitro: "The other was named Eliezer, meaning, 'The God
of my father helped me and He delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh'" (18:4).
Apparently, Moshe's second son had just been born. The question then arose when was Moshe
supposed to circumcise him? Didn't
Hashem command him to go down to
According to this reading, circumcision is both the sin and the cure. We can now also explain the Torah's stress of the encampment - the "malon" - a place of resting and relaxation. The place itself is the accusation against Moshe.
R. Yehoshua's opinion, that Moshe was "apathetic" towards the commandment of circumcision, needs explaining. Why would Moshe have ignored this commandment? Most likely, R. Yehoshua understood even a momentary delay in the fulfillment of the mitzvah as apathy. R. Hirsch further argues, "Was he not embarked on a mission to accomplish the salvation of a people whose whole meaning and importance... rests upon the idea of mila? And should he, just he, bring in the midst of this people an uncircumcised child? Rather, let him die than let him introduce his mission with such an example."
There is a fascinating midrash (Mechilta, Yitro 6) that suggests a very different and radical idea:
When Moshe asked for Tzipporah's hand in marriage, Yitro made a condition. He said, "Your first son must be allowed to worship avodah zarah (idolatry), and the children that follow, you may raise in the name of Heaven." Moshe accepted and Yitro made him swear that he would fulfill his promise... This is why the angel came to kill Moshe.
How could Moshe agree to this outrageous arrangement? According to one stream of rabbinic thought, Yitro was a religious skeptic, who personally tested every deity and worshipped every idol. The Torah records both Yitro's original title as a priest of Midian (2:16, 18:1) and his later statement about Hashem's greatness in chapter 18: "NOW I know that Hashem is the greatest amongst ALL GODS." Having arrived at the truth through relentless religious searching, Yitro wished to raise Moshe' firstborn in his way of free-thought and openness. If this midrash is correct, then Gershom, Moshe's firstborn, would not have been circumcised. It was NOT the new baby, Eliezer, who was in danger, but the older brother!
THE LARGER THEMES OF THE EXODUS
this interpretation is correct, than we can connect this story to two themes
that run throughout the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim - the concept of the
firstborn and the mitzvah of brit milah, the covenant with
Hashem. Let us examine the
second theme of circumcision.
Clearly, brit milah occupies a fundamental role in the story of
If a stranger who dwells with you would offer the Passover [sacrifice] to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. (Shemot 12:48-9)
Earlier in chapter 12, Rashi alludes to why specifically these two commandments are linked (we do not prevent an uncircumcised person from wearing tefillin or keeping Shabbat, for example). Quoting the midrash, Rashi suggests that Hashem said the following:
"The time has arrived for the fulfillment of the promise of redemption that I made to Avraham." However, the Jewish People had performed no commandments through which to merit redemption... Therefore, He gave them two mitzvoth, the blood of the korban Pesach and the blood of the brit milah. They all circumcised themselves that very night...
the Ramban comments, "It is well known that the People of Israel in
did the Jewish People abandon this central precept? For B'nei Yisrael,
the circumcision was more than a simple operation. The simple act was a living
expression of their covenant that connected the Jewish People to Hashem;
it was quite possibly the only remaining sign that they had left. Hashem made two covenants with
Avraham, the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim and brit milah. The first
covenant foretold slavery but promised redemption. History would take its course, but in
the end, Hashem would intercede and demonstrate His control over the
world. For undergoing this process,
the Jewish People would receive the
As the Ramban noted, however, with the corroding effects of slavery and suffering, the Jewish People slowly abandoned their covenant. With no end to their travails in sight, over time, people abandoned the brit milah, with all that it entailed. To assert man's active role in his destiny when the Egyptian taskmasters controlled every waking moment from the cradle to the grave, to assert faith and identify with the future of the Jewish nation, was an act that slowly receded from the abilities and the consciousness of the people.
second theme that runs through the story is the concept of the firstborn. Despite Sefer Bereishit's
repeated rejection of the firstborn son and the entire idea of the rule of
primogeniture, the Torah acknowledges the special role played by the firstborn
in the family. The law of
korban Pesach in chapter 12 is followed by the requirement to
sanctify all the firstborn of a family, both human and animal. The rationale for this is clear
Hashem's sparing of the firstborn of the Jewish People while killing the
then, did Hashem attack Moshe (or Gershom)? Based on the two themes that
have coalesced in our story, we can understand the significance of what has
occurred. Moshe is going to