Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week's parsha contains a story which I've never understood.  That doesn't mean that I do understand everything else.  It's just that this is an anecdote about which I don't have a clue.  I've found the temerity to deal with this narrative this year because of a book recently published by a former colleague of mine.  Shmuel Klitsner (I knew him as Steve.) has written a thought provoking work called Wrestling Jacob:  Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis.  First of all, I highly recommend this book.  Rabbi Klitsner's main premise is that we have to closely read all Biblical narratives to truly wring the full meaning out of the text.  This perusal requires us to bring to bear every literary skill that we possess.  Only after we've engaged all our intellectual forces (both rabbinic and secular) can we feel comfortable with the material.  I like this idea.  And he applies some of these principles to my mystery tale from this week's parsha.  So, let's do some close reading of this enigmatic passage, and I hope I don't regret the attempt to tackle this inscrutable tale.

            Here's the stuff:  Now Moshe was on the way (back to Egypt), in an inn, that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. So Zipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son's foreskin and cast it to his feet, and she said, "For you are a bridegroom of blood to me." So He released him. Then she said, "A bridegroom of blood concerning the circumcision (Exodus 4:24-26)."  This is confusing material.  God has told Moshe to go back to Egypt to fulfill his destiny (like Luke). He can go now because it's become safe since those that wanted to kill him have all passed away.  Then when he follows the instructions, God seems ready to kill him for no easily discerned reason.  It could be that he has sinned by not circumcising his child.  On the other hand, maybe it has nothing to do with circumcision but that circumcision provides protection from further danger.  And furthermore, what is this bridegroom of blood thing?  Sounds like something out of a Bela Lugosi film.          

            Rabbi Klitsner reviews many traditional commentaries on these verses, and portrays the position of the Rashbam (Reb Shmuel ben Meir, grandson of Rashi, 1085-1174) as most interesting.  Back in verse 14, it says that God was angry at Moshe for again trying to avoid the role of redeemer.  The words used for anger are charon af, which literally means nose anger.  This phrase is only used when there is a resulting punishment from God's rage.  So, the Rashbam explains that this byproduct of God's wrath is the attempted killing of Moshe in verse 24.  His wife, Zipporah, saves the day by assuaging God's fury by recommitting the family to the national covenant through the circumcision of their son.  This is clever and answers many problems both in verse 14 and here in verse 24.  But still leaves a few loose ends.

            The biggest outstanding issue is the expression chatan damim or bridegroom of blood.  Rashi believes that this term refers to the uncircumcised child who is causing the potential death of her bridegroom or Moshe.  But the Rashbam would say that it refers to Moshe himself.  He is her bridegroom who is causing the potential for bloodshed, by not being worthy of the role of savior because he hasn't fully accepted Gods' mission.  There is another approach, mentioned by Rabbi Klitsner and mostly (but not exclusively) appears in non-Jewish sources, which is based on the word then or oz in the text.  Zipporah circumcised her son at this point, because there had been an argument in this mixed marriage over when circumcision should be performed.  Moshe relented and allowed the circumcision to be delayed as was common in Midian until puberty and not on the eighth day after birth as we do it.  This is why the son is identified as her son (verse 25).  But Moshe couldn't lead the Children of Israel to their ethnic destiny if he was compromising on the commitment to our covenant. 

            One more point of view, before I throw in my own two cents.  Rabbi Klitsner sees strong linguistic parallels between this story and other stories of confrontation in the Torah.  Specifically there are connections to the story of Ya'akov and the wrestling match (which is referred to in Rabbi Klitsner's title), which takes place before his confrontation with Esav.  And there are similarities in Bilaam's encounter with the angel, only seen by his donkey, before his clash with the Jewish nation.  Of course, our story takes place before Moshes's first appearance before Pharaoh in Egypt. It seems that great confrontations are preceded by momentous spiritual struggles.  We must find our own voice and identity through internal struggle, before challenging our mortal foes.  A critical message for life, especially before a Red Sox-Yankee game.

            However, I think that there is another dynamic at work.  Moshe is going back to Egypt to find his special place in Jewish destiny.  He is striding onto the largest stage in his world if not all history.  His total being is going to be concentrated on this enormous and terrifying task. Every total war has casualties, some on purpose and some are collateral damage.  For Moshe, the first sufferers are his family.  Moshe will be so entangled in the mission that he will rarely give his family the attention that they require.  We see many hints at this reality in the Torah.  Moshe's children and wife rarely get mentioned after this incident.  Moshe is succeeded by a beloved student not his own children.  There is even a Midrash that some of Moshe's descendants were idolaters (Bava Batra 109b).

            This approach to the story answers many of the questions, but raises many dilemmas.  What price must be paid for leadership roles in Jewish nation building?  Perhaps an ultimate price in terms of ourselves and sadly our families.  Our admiration for Moshe and desire to emulate his dedication to the Jewish people must be tempered by awareness of the terrible sacrifices he had to make.  I pray we can contribute to this cause without losing our most precious possessions.        


You can subscribe to Rabbi Walk's weekly articles at WalkThroughTheParsha-subscribe@egroups.com

Hotmail: Powerful Free email with security by Microsoft. Get it now.