Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week's Torah reading is awesome.  The Jewish people emerge from their family, clannish roots to become a nation, albeit an enslaved one.  God appears to Moshe Rabbeinu as the Director in Chief of all history.  All this is very impressive, but, to my thinking, there's a tremendous problem.  There are many difficult episodes in our Torah and Tanach, but, for my money, the hardest to explain is right here in our parsha.  I have tremendous trouble explaining the following scenario: Now he (Moshe) was on the way, 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)."  I'm eternally mystified by this occurrence.  Let's see if we can't make some sense of this short tale.

            Even though the Midrash suggests that some sort of demon, in the form of a snake, was threatening Moshe, the verse is clear that God is the attacker.  What was Moshe's crime?  It seems on the surface level that postponing your son's circumcision is a capital offense.  Is that possible?  No, even never doing a bris isn't a capital offense!  Moshe even had good excuses.  He was under direct orders from God to travel to Egypt, and we don't perform circumcisions while on the move.  According to tradition, the Jews didn't perform circumcisions the entire forty years in the desert, because they never knew when they would have to set out on the journey.  One approach to explain God's anger is presented by both the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1156) and the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir, 1089-1164).  They both say God was upset by Moshe's delaying his mission to Egypt.  The Ibn Ezra adds that bringing his wife and children with him was ill advised, because the Israelites would say, how could it be that he has come to take us out, when he has come with his family to settle down?  The circumcision isn't the problem; it's the family itself.

            But none of this is very convincing.  I noticed an idea in a fascinating little book called Wrestling Jacob by Rabbi Shmuel Klitzner.  Rabbi Klitzner compares this story to the story of Bilaam.  Moshe has this encounter with God before his major confrontation with Pharaoh to energize him from his excessive humility. He never wanted to go.  Bilaam had his famous conversation with his donkey right before his assignment to curse the Jews, to remove his hubris.  This guy, on the other hand, wanted very badly to go, but God was restraining him.  I found this idea extremely interesting, and it got me thinking about other similar incidents.  It appears that immediately before almost every great confrontation or clash in our Bible there is a soul searching private moment.  Perhaps the most famous is the source for the title of Rabbi Klitzner's book.  Before Ya'akov's meeting with Esav after over twenty years of separation, he has an enigmatic contretemps with a stranger.  Most say that the stranger was the angel of Esav, but it's definitely a strange close encounter of the fourth kind.  But there are more.  Joshua meets with an angel who identifies himself as God's general the night before his battle for Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15).  Devora and Barak have quiet time of encouragement together before the tremendous victory over Sisera (Judges 4:14).  And I think that the first Pesach Seder in Egypt falls into this category of private time before public challenge.  Remember, the Paschel lamb can only be eaten by those who are specifically connected together before the sacrifice, and it must be eaten within the confines of the private home.  What do all these encounters signify?

            I believe that we're being taught an extremely important lesson.  We think of the giants of our people as courageous to the point that they no longer have our petty, personal fears.  That's just not true.  No one eliminates these anxieties; these great individuals have learned to control the phobia common to us all, to achieve greatness in spite of them.  Bravery is about persevering and succeeding even though we're afraid.  It isn't courageous people who are fearless; it's foolish people.  All these episodes provided these heroes with the opportunity (or, perhaps, the danger) of thinking through the enormity of the assignment before them.  Have you ever spent the night before a major undertaking tossing and turning through a sleepless night?  These are the Biblical equivalent of those panic attacks.  In the Bible the projected dread perfectly frames the situation for the protagonist. I'm not sure that that's true of my nightmares.

            This brings to the final point.  What is the point of this weird occurrence in the inn?  How does this aborted execution over the circumcision prepare Moshe for his confrontation with Pharaoh?  I think that Moshe is being informed of, perhaps, the most difficult part of his agency on behalf of God.  He will not be an engaged father.  This all consuming task of taking the Jews out of Egypt, presenting them with the Torah, and leading them through the desert for forty years will prevent him from leading a normal family life.  Most, if not all the parenting jobs will fall upon Zipporah, his wife.  This realization almost kills Moshe, but he carries on with the mission.  This sad, but necessary, scenario will bite him again, when at the end of life he is succeeded by his disciple and not his sons.

            Thank God, very few of us have to make this kind of sacrifice to fulfill our roles in life.  But there is an extremely important lesson in all of this for every one of us.  Our major challenges in life are always primarily personal.  We mistakenly try to separate our private lives from our public duties.  It's impossible.  It's just like House Speaker Tip O'Neil once wisely observed, "All politics are local."  All of our commitments are very personal, not matter how publicly they may be carried out.  Hopefully, we find the strength to carry out these obligations with the sincerity and morality that we try to display in our private lives.    


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