When Hashem Tried to Kill Moshe

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

PARASHAT SHEMOT

 

When Hashem Tried to Kill Moshe

 

By Rav Yaakov Beasley

 

INTRODUCTION

 

This 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 Egypt. In chapter 2, the focus changes to recalling the birth of Moshe, whose protection in his infancy was a remarkable instance of Divine providence (as well as irony –Moshe's deliverance and upbringing occur from Pharaoh's palace itself).  From the middle of chapter 2, the focus shifts to Moshe as a young man and his attempts to deal with the injustices that he witnesses around him.  Finally, in chapter 3, Hashem informs Moshe that he has been selected as Hashem's agent for delivering B'nei Yisrael from Egypt. Hashem reveals His Divine name to Moshe, who eventually overcomes his hesitancies.  Although reluctant at first, Moshe finally is convinced to return to Egypt and save the Jewish People.

 

 In Shemot 4:18, Moshe prepares to leave Midian, where he had lived for forty years, to return to Egypt.  We watch Moshe load up his simple donkey with his wife and two boys to set out on the journey to Egypt, "to return to his brothers" in order to undertake Hashem's mission. As Moshe is on his way, Hashem appears suddenly to kill him:

 

And 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 Egypt and see whether they are yet alive." And Yitro said to Moshe, "Go in peace." And Hashem said to Moshe in Midian, "Go, return into Egypt: for all the men are dead who sought your life." And Moshe took his wife and his sons and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt; and Moshe took the rod of God in his hand.
And Hashem said to Moshe, "When you return to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand; but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go. And you shall say to Pharaoh, 'So says Hashem, Israel [is] my son, [even] my firstborn. And I say unto you, Let my son go, that he may serve me; and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, [even] your firstborn.'"

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

 

Without 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 Israel and then attempt to kill him on the way to perform his mission? What sin precipitated the attack?  (Of course, these questions assume that Moshe was the intended victim, as we will discuss presently).  Regarding the circumcision, how did Tzipporah know that this was the appropriate antidote to the attack? Why does this circumcision need to be performed just now?

 

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."

R. 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 Egypt!?'" In that case, why was Moshe punished? Because he occupied himself with issues of lodgings as first priority, as it states, "He met him at the lodging place."

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.

 

Which 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 Egypt immediately?  According to R. Yossi's understanding, Moshe was reluctant to delay his mission. Caught between two commands, to circumcise his son and delay his mission or to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, Moshe chose the latter. However, once they reached the desert inn (apparently near enough to Egypt so as not to endanger the child's health of the child), Moshe's rationale to delay performing the circumcision disappeared.

 

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

 

If 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 leaving Egypt.  The next mention of circumcision in the Torah occurs at the end of chapter 12, when the Torah discusses the laws of the korban Pesach for future generations: 

 

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...

 

Similarly, the Ramban comments, "It is well known that the People of Israel in Egypt were sinful. They had even abandoned the practice of brit milah..." (commentary to 12:40).

 

Why 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 Land of Israel as an inheritance.  In the second covenant, however, the Jewish People transform from passive recipients, tossed through history's raging currents, to active participants and partners with Hashem.  To receive the promised blessings, they have to actively express their belonging and sense of nationhood with a physical mark on their bodies.

 

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.

 

The 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 firstborn of Egypt.  In our story, we note that the Torah just described Israel as Hashem's firstborn (4:22), and followed with Hashem threatening to kill Pharaoh's firstborn (4:23). Finally, our story follows, with Hashem attempting to kill Moshe's firstborn. 

 

Why, 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 Egypt to lead the people to freedom.  Clearly, Moshe cannot accept the leadership of the nation, in which he must attempt to inspire the people to place their hopes with the Divine promise and identify once again with the Divine historical promise, while one of Moshe's own children is raised in a foreign tradition.  Moshe had to communicate the covenant and its message of belonging and hope for those who would actively identify with it to the people.  Only through actively demonstrating his belief in the truth of his message could Moshe be successful.