Opening and the Ark

What does it mean to open the Ark?

In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah [“going up” Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).

How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?

The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.

Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.

What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?
To what are you opening?

Entering the Torah Service
Here in this Torah Service we travel the wilderness in the company of the Ark, stand again at Sinai, and re-enact the process of transmission and interpretation as multiple individuals rise to bring the Torah from script to voice. Time collapses. We join the ageless chorus reciting verses that challenge and comfort, awe and enrage, perplex and command. We feel the presence of Jews who have experienced much, in endurance and in celebration, preserving these words. We feel the call of future Jews depending on us to grasp this Tree of Life and hold it for them.

At this expansive point we pray that our hearts open to the essence of Torah and ask for the gift of God’s good light to guide us through our daily lives.

In this precious, liminal moment, fear and need merge with strength and hope. May we all, particularly those observing lifecycle events at the Torah, emerge from this service with a renewed sense of blessings. Let the divine flow of communication represented here bring to us, and to all whom we touch, peace, mercy, sustenance, and gratitude. Thank you for this good teaching. Amen
–Virginia Spatz

More on Opening the Ark

My prayer, above, is based in part on language and themes found in several prayers, including B’rich sh’mei [blessed is the Name], recited at the start of the Torah service.


בריך שמה דמרא עלמא
Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe

(from Zohar, parashat vayakhel)

The Zohar says, “Rabbi Shimon said: When the scroll of Torah is removed from the ark to be read to the congregation, the heavenly gates of mercy are opened and love is aroused in the world above. Here a person adds….”B’rich sh’mei d’marei alma…. [Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe!…]”

Blessed is the name of the Master of the universe. Blessed is your crown and your place [v’atrach] May You love your people Israel forever. Reveal the salvation of your right hand to your people in your sanctuary. Lead us to discover the goodness of your light, and accept our prayer in mercy. May it be your will to prolong our lives in happiness.

I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I relay, nor upon angels [or “messengers”] do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.
–See My People’s Prayer Book


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אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרֹג כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַּעֲרֹג
Soothing songs and poems I weave because my soul longs for You.

I was also inspired by a woman’s kavvanah [intention] associated with Anim Zemirot. This hymn is recited when the Ark is open, sometimes early morning, sometimes in concluding prayers; sometimes on Shabbat, often on Festivals. It is not included in the Shabbat Mishkan T’filah, but it does appear in the Weekday/Festival edition. Here’s a link to the full text of Anim Zemirot, sometimes called “Shir HaKavod [Song of Glory],” as well as several recordings.

Here is the women’s meditation from Aliza Lavie’s collection:.


Master of the universe. Just as the Holy Ark is opened here, so may a window be opened in heaven: the gates of mercy. May my prayer be accepted among the other pure prayers that are surely accepted before You, and may it be a crown for Your head….Remember me, my husband, my beloved children, and dear ones, at the time that is called a time of favor and a time of success, so that our lives may be called lives of joy, lives of sustenance, lives of blessing, lives of peace, lives of mercy, and of Your good teachings. Bless us with the three keys that have never been handed over to any emissary, but come about only through Your own blessing. With this I conclude; hurry to my aid, God of my deliverance.

…Protect us all from that which my heart fears, and spare me, my husband, and my children from mortal charity. Hear my prayer [name of worshipper], daughter of [mothers name], as You heard the righteous Hannah and the other righteous women. Amen. Selah
A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book. Aliza Lavie NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2008


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More Thoughts on Opening the Ark

A few more thoughts, from two different prayer books, on opening the Ark and taking out the Torah…

We approach the Torah slowly. First we open the ark so that the Torah is visible. We look at the Torah but refrain from touching. Next, the Torah is removed from the ark and held by the service leader. Later the Torah is carried through the congregation, and everyone can touch the Torah. This demonstrates that the Torah is not the property of those leading the services; the Torah belongs to the Jewish community. Finally, the coverings of the Torah scroll are removed, allowing us a privileged intimacy with the words we hear.
– Dan Ehrenkrantz, Kol Haneshamah [Reconstructionist] siddur

The verses we sing when we take the Torah scroll from the Ark and when we return it recall the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, when they carried the Ark with them….We are a people defined by history. We carry our past with us. We relive it in ritual and prayer. We are not lonely individuals, disconnected with past and present. We are characters in the world’s oldest continuous story, charged with writing its next chapter and handing it on to those who come after us.
–Jonathan Sacks in Koren Sacks [Orthodox] Siddur, p.xxxiv-xxxv

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Key Footnote

I asked local scholar Norman Shore for help with understanding the “three keys.” Here are the sources he provided, shared with gratitude.

R. Johanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead. The Key of Rain, for It is written, ‘The Lord will open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season,’ (Deut 28:12) The Key of Childbirth, for it is written, ‘And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.'(Gen 30:22) The Key of the Revival of the Dead, for it is written, ‘And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves.’ (Ezek 37:13). In Palestine they said: Also the Key of Sustenance, for it is said, Thou openest thy hand etc. (Ps 145:16) Why does not R. Johanan include also this [key]? — Because in his view sustenance is [included in] Rain.
— Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 2a-2b

And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:7). Now, when [God] saw that the world was distressed [because of the drought], it is written, ‘And the word of the Lord came unto him (Elijah), saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath’ (ibid 8ff). And it is further written, ‘And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick’ (ibid 17). Elijah prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered, “Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, ‘Two are in the hands of the disciple[1] and [only] one in the hand of the Master?’ Bring [Me] the other and take this one, as it is written, ‘Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’ (ibid 18:1).”[2]
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 113

Footnotes, like text, from Soncinco, public domain edition:
1) Since the key of rain was already in Elijah’s possession, and now he was asking for the key of resurrection too.

2) I but not Thou. The whole passage is adduced to shew how God, having given the key of rain to Elijah, obtained its return, and that the illness of the widow’s son was for that purpose.

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Metzora: Something to Notice

Elaine Goodfriend, who edited the commentary to accompany the portion Metzora in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,* notes a number of reasons that menstruation was probably less common for ancient women compared with contemporaries:

sparser diet and later onset of menstruation;
earlier marriage and more pregnancies;
breast-feeding for 3 years (based on biblical stories).

I have read similar comments over the years. Was menstruation regarded in the ancient world, then, as out-of-the-ordinary, rather than a regular, natural process for women? I don’t know the answer, but it could explain much of the disconnect between the biblical and the modern understanding of women’s bleeding/discharge.
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Tazria: Great Source(s)

We can also consider a connection between menstruation and covenant. The prophet Zechariah speaks to “daughter Jerusalem” and “daughter Zion” about “your covenant of blood” as that which releases prisoners from the dry pit (9:9-11).* It does not say “the covenant of blood,” as most translations render it, but rather emphasizes that blood is the focus of the covenant. The address to the feminine persona suggests that all “daughters of Zion” have that covenant of blood. It is through menstruation — from puberty when we accept our responsibilities as Jews, through the elder years when bleeding stops and deep wisdom starts — that the entire world is saved from the dry pit of death, in which there is no water, no womb, no regeneration, no rebirth.

See menstrual blood, then, as women’s covenantal blood — just as blood of b’rit milah (ritual circumcision) is men’s….
–Elyse Goldstein in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary** (p.675)

* gam-at [also you (fem. sing.) b’dam [in blood] b’riteich [of your (fem. sing. possessive) covenant]

** Please see Source Materials for full citation and additional information.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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One Woman’s Conclusion (Ex. 24)

One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah)
for Exodus 24:1-11

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how glad I often was that I was not destined to fully join my husband’s prophetic family. I, for one, was perfectly content as one of the ones who stayed far off [1]. I already knew I couldn’t — and wouldn’t care to — go a step closer.

But, there I was, among the seventy [2]. For the record, which is not always clear, there were five women among the atzelai[3]: Shifra and Puah by virtue of their standing in the community [4]; Miriam, because she usually managed to be everywhere that concerned her brother [5]; Serakh, because of her status as an elder — yes, I agree that “elder” is something of an understatement for the daughter of Asher ben Jacob [6], but that’s another story — and, you’re right, even 500 years weren’t enough for her to be considered an “Elder” with a capitol `E,’ but we’d better leave that for another day, too. And me? I don’t know exactly how I ended up there.

Anyway, there we were, the seventy of us plus Moses, sharing an experience… Or, at least we agreed about the bricks. Well, maybe `agree’ isn’t quite the word:

Abihu saw a pattern of complex crystals [7]; Nadav, fired brick [8]. Aaron saw the foundation stones of the Covenant [9]. Someone said the pyramid bricks had been transformed into gemstones [10]. Shifra saw glistening birthing stones and even wondered aloud if we’d be inundated when the waters really broke [11]. Puah said no, labor must be further along, given all the quaking and thunder [12]. The rest of us knew better than to get into that one.

And, there was never much hope of agreement on the color. Some had clearly seen blue [13]; others insisted on white [14]. A few suggested that the surface merely reflected what was above it [15].

All told, there must be more than 70 different accounts, and each one will no doubt become the basis for many more tales [16]. So, let me stick to mine.

When we first arrived at the place, we were engulfed in ground-fog. Nadav and Abihu were already trying to climb higher, but Miriam reached out to pull them back. In the end, she had no more success with her nephews [17] than I had with her brother, but that morning, the young men followed her lead.

Miriam began a dance. Abihu, Nadav, and the rest of us fell right into step with her, all of us whirling through the mist, around those bricks and their many meanings, immersed in the dance and the Presence. Maybe it was the natural way Miriam responded, or the community gathered around us. I’m not sure. But I do know that this couldn’t have been more different from that night at the lodging place [18]…

Later, when the sun’s rays were just beginning to find us, the veil of morning mist was suddenly torn from the mountain [18] bathing us in a light so bright and so blue that it took my breath away [19, 20].

“It’s not true, you know,” Serakh began, “that we can’t see God” [21]. There were a lot of worried looks then, but she continued in her calm, storyteller’s voice. “My great-great-grandfather’s second wife was forced to leave the family [22], but before she left, Hagar touched us in many ways and shared with us her name for God: God of Vision, God of my seeing, who sees me” [23]. I looked out at the faces around the circle, at Serakh’s ancient, furrowed brow; at Abihu’s eager, young eyes; at Aaron’s peacemaking smile and Puah’s determined chin. Serakh was right, of course. We can see God and live to tell of it. We do it all the time [24].

A twig snapped somewhere, and the moment was gone. Suddenly, as if we’d planned it — or all realized our hunger at once — we all began scurrying for our provisions. Aaron suggested looking for Moses, who’d disappeared by then [25], but Miriam and I agreed — a rare event in our acquaintance…and about something concerning her brother, at that! — to let Moses pursue his experience as we pursued ours. So, we saw God, and we ate and drank [26, 27].

And what happened to Moses? Well, I long ago gave up trying to explain what it was like being co-wife to the Shekhinah [28], and I never tried to interpret Moses’ experiences. But, I will tell you this: Everyone else will tell you that Moses had already disappeared by the time we started to dance that morning at the bricks. But I know what I know, and I know that Moses and I were joined for a few moments in that dance, not as husband and wife, but as two within the Presence. The weight he’d been carrying seemed to have become pure energy; he was light and free and burning again with the bush’s fire. And when we danced, Moses handed me a gift I’ve needed many times in these last 40 years — the certainty that the Presence would never crush him and that, because of the weight he willing bore, we all dance on firmer ground.

End notes:
1. “Atzelai,” Ex 24:11. At Ex 24:1, Ex 24:9, and elsewhere, ziknei, elders, are summoned. Here, the term often translated as “elders,” “great men,” or “nobles” is a different, rarely used expression: atzelai. In Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (based on Samuel Raphael Hirsch’s etymology), atzelai is translated as the “ones who stayed at far off.”

2. See Exodus/Shemot 24:1.

3. Buber says the term “Atzelai,” means either “corner pillars” or “joints” (Moses: Revelation and the Covenant, p.118). Another reading (Ramban) is based on the verb “to emanate,” because “the spirit of G-d emanated upon them. Similarly, `I have called thee mei-atzilehah‘ from those upon whom his spirit has emanated (Isaiah 41:9).”

4. See Exodus/Shemot 1:21, “And it was because the midwives feared God that He made them houses.”

5. Miriam is closely connected with her brother’s life, even before it begins: In midrash, she is responsible for insisting, at age 6, that the Hebrew couples (including her parents) who had separated during Pharaoh’s decree, remarry and produce childrenamong whom is Moses (Sotah 12a). She follows her brother’s passage down the Nile, is there to offer a wet-nurse to Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex 2:4-7)….

6. See Numbers/Bamidbar 26:40 and associated midrash. Serakh bat Asher ben Jacob, who would have been born five centuries before the Exodus, is listed when the census is taken in Numbers; midrash links this apparent longevity to the grandchild’s role in announcing Joseph’s whereabouts to Jacob. See, e.g., p.85 in Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam.*

7. Ex 24:10: “Ha-sappir.” See p.175 in Clark’s Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, “precious stone composed of many crystals.”

8. Ex 24:10: “Livnat.” Fired brick.

9. Hertz Soncino on Ex 24:10.

10. Rashi on Ex 24:10.

11. Based very loosely on a remark in Lifecycles,* vol. 1, p.8 about “a feminized Baruch She’amar” yielding “Blessed is the One who wombs (whose waters break over) the world.”

12. Alicia Ostriker* (Nakedness of the Fathers, p.127) refers to Revelation as God breaking through “heaven’s membrane, from being beyond time to being within time.”

I’m pretty sure I’ve read a midrash more directly making Sinai a birth-event, but I can’t remember where: If you know of such a text, please tell me; if not, you read it here first!

13. Another reading of ha-sappir is “sapphire,” though not apparently the corundum-based gem but lapis lazuli which was known to the ancient Near East (heavily featured, for example, in items from the Tombs of Ur, recently [recently in 2000, when this was written] on exhibit at the Sackler Gallery).

There is also a tradition that the tablets given to Moses were made of this blue stone (my daughter, Tracy Spatz O’Brien [then age 9], found this in her The Little Midrash Says for Shemot, with sources listed as Zohar 37a and Sifsai Kohen.) So, maybe what the atzelai saw were the bits chipped off as God carved the first tablets.

14. Clark’s Etymological Dictionary links livnat with “white,” “purifying” and “bright moon” as well as with “fired brick.”

15. Rabbi Meir’s teaching about the deeply blue dye tekhelet used for tzitzit (Talmud Menachoth 23b), links tekhelet with the color of the sea, the color of the sky, and the Throne of Glory. But, thanks to a drash of [former] Fabrangen member [now active at Adas Israel and with the Jewish Study Center] Sheldon Kimmel (personal communication), we also know that the substance which produces tekhelet is colorless until exposed to light; similarly, water is only blue in reflecting the sky, while the sky is not really blue either, but the way we perceive its light.

16. See notes on Psalm 19 (p.184-187 in Kol Haneshamah). Ha-sappir is related in Clark’s etymology to: `telling, reciting past event’ (Genesis 40:9), `declaring’ (Ps 22:23), `scribe’ (Jr 36:32), `book, collection of ideas’ (Genesis 5:1); and to the concept of “unifying.”

Marc-Alain Ouaknin argues, in Mysteries of the Alphabet, that Sinai was the birth of the alphabet, freeing written symbols from concrete symbolism perhaps even explaining why the Israelites “saw voices.” See also Yitro: Something to Notice.

17. Nadab and Abihu die “offering alien fire” before the Lord (Lev 10:1ff).

18. Exodus 4:24-26: On the journey from Midian to Egypt, Moses is attacked by God, and Zipporah saves him by circumcising their son (or possibly Moses himself, in variant readings). See also my midrash, “Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View.”

19. God tells Moses, “Come up to the mountain, and be there.” Buber says this shows we have to “be there” before the text, i.e., ready to receive it.

If you’re one of those for whom the phrase “be here now” immediately calls to mind Baba Ram Dass, suppose for a moment that after he turned on, instead of traveling to India, Richard Alpert had visited a shul on Shabbat Mishpatim: What kind of book would Rabbi Alpert (Rabbi Ram Dass?) have written?

20. Buber, Moses, pp.117: “…the representatives of Israel come to see Him on the heights of Sinai. They have presumably wandered through clinging, hanging mist before dawn; and at the very moment they reach their goal, the swaying darkness tears asunder (as I myself happened to witness once) and dissolves except for one cloud already transparent with the hue of the still unrisen sun. The sapphire proximity of the heavens overwhelms the aged shepherds of the Delta, who have never before tasted, who have never been given the slightest idea, of what is shown in the play of early light over the summits of the mountains. And this precisely is perceived by the representatives of the liberated tribes as that which lies under the feet of their enthroned Melek.”

21. Compare, e.g., Exodus 33:20.

22. Genesis 21:9-21. Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the desert by Sarah and Abraham.

23. Genesis 16:13. Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, runs way from Sarah’s cruelty, meets an angel in the desert, and names God.

24. Consider, for example: Although the portion ends with ha-elohim meaning “God” — under whose feet the Israelites see bricks, blue, and one another — ha-elohim in the opening of this portion (Ex 21:6) means “judges,” earthly representatives of God.

25. Ex 24:11.

26. Set these ordinances before the people — as a table laid for a meal (Rashi).

27. For those who know that all the really good stuff is in the footnotes anyway: if there are tiles under God’s feet and blue above, maybe the atzelai were invited to join God in the mikveh (the gathering of waters designed to immerse us wholly in a moment, between past and future) or to join God as mikveh (“Hope of Israel,” past, present and future). Thus, the three immersions (fog, movement, and light). And/or, if the bricks are made from the same substance as the Torah (see notes 13 and 16 above), maybe the atzelai are immersed in Torah. And/or…

28. Moses enjoyed an unprecedented, face-to-face relationship with God. Moses is sometimes said to have wed the Shekhinah, the presence of God amongst the people, one of the feminine aspects of God, according to mystical (kabbalistic) teachings.

* Complete citations and further details can be found in Source Materials

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One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah) for Exodus 24:1-11 by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View

Drawing Back

A Midrash on Exodus 4:24-26 [18]

Moses and I have long agreed that our journey left us in very different places. Only recently, though, have I come to wonder if we even shared a starting point…

In the beginning, I remember, both boys [1] were almost trampled to death when the elder tried to push his new brother off my breast. Plus, the little one wasn’t nursing well and screamed himself to sleep without drinking enough for that day’s heat. When I couldn’t rouse him at first, I began to panic. So, of course, my milk wouldn’t let down when I was finally able to awaken him. It was just eight days after the birth of our not-yet-named son, and I was losing blood again. I was exhausted, missing my sisters, and wondering again if this trip were truly necessary. But my husband – about some things anyway.

First, he’d gone to Father, telling him with an urgency I had not seen since that long ago day at the well [2] that he must see how his brethren were faring [3]. With Father’s blessing, he’d rushed through the preparations and we’d made our good-byes. Then, when he was all but on the road, he’d returned in another rush, telling me that the boys and I should accompany him, that we would all live in Egypt. Finally, as the donkeys were already proceeding, Moses had rushed back once more for the staff he used in shepherding.

In fits and starts through the day’s journey, I had heard more words from that man than he ordinarily spoke from one new moon to the next. He’d told me again about the bush [4] and the staff, the promise of redemption and his need to be among his people. Mostly, though, he’d repeated the same fears: “Why would Pharaoh receive a man of the slave people, a man who’d actually fled court to become a shepherd? Would any Israelite trust a man raised in Pharaoh’s palace? Would they recognize him as a fellow?” [5]

Moses wasn’t hearing my responses, and I knew those were not his only fears, so I let the silences grow. Then just before nightfall, Moses began to speak again, this time of a land of milk and honey and a river of blood; the need to bring the people into God’s presence and the terrors that faced everyone before the redemption could take place. That was when he began to shiver.

The night was quite warm, so at first I assumed the shivering was exhaustion. Still, I remember hesitating to halt our journey, thinking Moses might tell me more if we kept our pace. Eventually, though, I felt the need to lie down and suggested we stop.

Moses barely spoke as we settled in for the night. The boys were already sleeping, and I was beginning to drift off, when he suddenly sat up and shouted, “Not my first born!” [6] Moses shook in his cloak, mumbling something about that river of blood and where it would lead. He was sinking deeper into the grip of the fever [7]. He began struggling for breath, and each gasp seemed to be emptying the little room of its air. For a time I feared Moses’ struggle with the fever might engulf the boys and me as well.

I remember thinking how easily men seem to link blood with death and how constantly they must be reminded that blood is also the source of life. Still bleeding myself from bringing forth the exquisite new life sharing my wrap, I suddenly pictured Moses shortly after Gershom’s birth, demanding that he be circumcised according to Israelite custom. How I’d railed at Moses then!” [8] And, as Moses continued to shiver, I found myself repeating aloud what I’d shouted at him over Gershom’s birth: “Why should your fathers’ God want the blood of this perfectly formed babe? Haven’t I shed enough?”[9]

But that night, kneeling between new life and near death… that’s when I experienced a clarity as sharp and all-encompassing as a birth pain… and as impossible to recall after it has passed.

I can tell you that my fingers refused to uncurl afterward, so hard had I clutched the flint [10]. I can relate how I touched Moses with the blood, telling him, “You are a blood bridegroom,” and how, soon after that, I saw Moses’ fever depart. But none of that explains how the wound I inflicted allowed our family to breathe again that night, or how its scar eventually became a lifeline drawing Moses back to us.

I can tell you how, when Moses finally sat up, I recognized his expression. I’d seen it many times before, on the faces of men at festival rites with my father only there was no joy in Moses’ face, just awe and determination [11]. I can repeat what I told Moses then,”You are a blood bridegroom to me.” I can describe Moses’ response, his solemn nod, the way he carefully placed my hand on his shoulder before pulling our wide-eyed Gershom to his side and picking up our bandaged infant. And I can tell you that it wasn’t to me or to the children that Moses looked when naming our youngest. But does that explain how, even as I felt his shoulder under my hand, I knew that I could no longer hold Moses? Does it give you any clue to the terror I felt as he leaned forward and away from me, intoning “Eliezer– God is my help”? [12]

There is so little of that night’s experience that translates into everyday language. If I tell you that Moses and I lived the rest of our marriage from opposite shores of that river of blood, am I speaking your language? Perhaps I should simply tell you how glad I was to let Aaron and Moses continue on alone after that night.” [13]

Over the years I’ve come to be grateful that I was not destined for prophecy or priesthood. But, I do still regret that I never succeeded in making anyone else understand what was so clear to me that night…

I was never quite sure what Aaron knew in the beginning, and after the tragedy [14] we couldn’t speak of such things at all. Miriam, who received and responded to prophecy as naturally as most people breathe, simply could not — or would not –understand how different things were for her brother or for me. [15]

Even father — who was able to help Moses share the burden of his prophecy, to get through to him when no one else could [16] — couldn’t unburden me. [17]

1. Gershom, Moses’ and Zipporah’s first child, is introduced and named at Exodus 2:22 and again at Ex 18:3. At Exodus 18:3-4, two sons are named. I am following a line of commentary that assumes both boys had been born at the time of this trip, although the second had not yet been named (or circumcised; see, e.g., Shemot Rabbah). Other commentary has the second child born during this trip, and so outside Midian. Still others assume that only one child was born before this incident, leaving the second to be born back in Midian, while Moses and Aaron are in Egypt.

2. Exodus 2:16-21.

3.Exodus 4:18.

4. Exodus 3:1-4:17.

5.Exodus 2:1-15.

6. Sarna’s note on Ex 4:23 (The JPS Torah Commentary) links this verse, which closes with “Behold, I shall kill your firstborn son,” words Moses is told to speak to Pharaoh, with the incident at the lodging place that directly follows.

7. In The Depths of Simplicity: Incisive Essay on the Torah (NY: Feldheim, 1994), R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky suggests that it is the potential leader’s tension between obligation and fear that causes Moses’ illness and that Zipporah’s cure is a reminder of the covenant and his role in its unfolding. I have blended this midrash with the picture of Zipporah that emerges from the myriad other commentaries and midrashim on this odd passage.

8. The brevity of the “night lodging” passage and its use of pronouns and verbs without clear referent leads to much confusion, and so food for comment, ancient and modern. Who does the threatening: an angel? God? Who is threatened: the elder child, the younger child, or Moses? Who is circumcised here Moses or one of his children? and who does Zipporah touch with the blood? Who is the “bridegroom of blood”? Are there two separate referents in the two uses of this term?

In addition, commentators disagree about why the attack took place: was it punishment for a failure to circumcise? a pre-leadership test of Moses? Nor is there agreement about why Zipporah took the action she did: as a magical rite of Midian origin? as a sign of the Israelite covenant, which she understood from her husband’s teaching? an action that seemed necessary to her, based on the situation alone?

9. Some traditional commentary on Ex 4:24-26 suggests that Jethro forbade circumcising his grandsons; Zipporah’s opinion is not recorded.

10. Ex 4:25.

11. Jethro is known as “the priest of Midian” (Ex. 3:1, 18:1).

13. Zipporah is not mentioned in the text between Ex 4:26 and Ex 18:2, when Jethro comes to Moses in the desert with “Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home.” Rashi’s commentary has Aaron suggesting that Zipporah and the children, not being Israelites, not be forced to suffer, and Moses agreeing to “send them home.”

14. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu die “offering alien fire before to the Lord” (Lev 10:1ff).

15. See Numbers 12:6-8, where God tells Miriam and Aaron that they do not understand the difference between Moses’ prophecy and those who receive visions and dreams.

16. See the account of Jethro’s visit to Moses in the desert at Ex 18:1-27, especially Jethro’s telling Moses, “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out, you as well as this people that is with you — for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone. Now heed my voice,…” (Ex. 18:17-19)

17. Zipporah is a footnote-lovers’ dream. She appears only three or four times in the Torah: she is called by name only in Ex 2:21, Ex 4:25, and Ex 18:2 and is possibly the “Cushite” woman who is the focus of Numbers chapter 12. Yet it is this marginal character who stares down God (or a messenger thereof) in order to save her family–and, as a result, the Israelites. In three short verses, a woman who lives largely in the footnotes, or in the white space between the Torah’s letters, makes possible the redemption of the Israelites and the birth of the Jews.

18. This story originally appeared in All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet & the Women of Exodus, edited by Rebecca A. Schwartz. Rikudei Miriam Press, 2001.

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Drawing Back: Zipporah’s View by Virginia A. Spatz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.