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 seemed so sure – 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.

Beshalach: Language and Translation

There are several significant shifts of number in this week’s portion. One occurs earlier in the portion, when “Egypt” and “the Egyptians” chase the Israelites.

In Shemot/Exodus 14:9, the Egyptians are plural and take a plural verb:

Va-yirdefu Mitzrayim achareihem [The Egyptians set out after them]

In the next verse, however, the Israelites view “Egypt” as a singular entity traveling — nosea [singular] — after them.

Alan Lew writes in Be Still and Get Going:*

Why does the Torah shift number so cavalierly here? According to Rashi, it is because the Torah wishes to emphasize what it was the Israelites saw when they raised their eyes to the horizon. They saw not the Egyptians themselves, in the plural, but the spirit of Egypt, in the singular. They saw their idea of Egypt. They saw the Egypt in which they had cowered as slaves for four hundred years, in which they were abused and outnumbered. In other words, they saw their fear of Egypt. They saw a mental construct, or in Rebbe Nachman’s words, something that they were afraid of but didn’t have to be.

The biblical text takes pains to make the same point. This text is ambiguous about exactly how many chariots there were in the army that had pinned the Israelites down at the sea….

…Why would such a tremendous throng be afraid of 1,800, or even 180,000, charioteers? The answer is that they were not responding to what was really there, nor even to what they saw. Rather they were responding to a phantom. They were responding to a fear-inducing product of their own imagination.

Later, at the Song of the Sea — when Moses and then Miriam sing to the LORD — there is another shift:

Ashira L’YHVH — I will sing to the LORD (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
Shiru L’YHVH — Sing [plural] to the LORD (15:21)

*For complete citation and other information, please see Source Materials.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Beshalach and Bobby McGee

“Together, Today, with a Desert to Roam”

A Lyrical Commentary on Parashat Beshalach,
to the tune of “Me and Bobby McGee” —
with apologies and thanks to authors Fred Foster and Kris Kristoferson,
and to Janis Joplin on whose rendition this is based.
(c) V. Spatz, 2003.

[composed for the occasion of a Fabrangen bat mitzvah]
Continue reading Beshalach and Bobby McGee

Bo: Something to Notice

There are many things of import to notice in this portion: this is the 15th portion in the Torah but the first to focus on commandments; the first of many commandments in this portion centers around time-keeping (the new month); three of the “four children” at the seder appear; etc. So, it’s easy to overlook minor but fruitful points of interest.

The LORD disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself [ha-ish moshe] was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people. — Exodus/Shemot 11:3

Now Moses [ha-ish moshe] was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. — Numbers/Bamidbar 12:3 (JPS)

Plaut’s commentary* notes that these are the “two personal assessments of Moses in the Torah” and that “both times the expression is used [ha-ish moshe], literally, ‘the man Moses.'”

What does it mean that, of all the virtues that might be ascribed to the central character of four of the five books of the Torah, “humility” is the only one explicitly applied to Moses? Why is Moses described is “much esteemed” by others — but presumably not himself?
Continue reading Bo: Something to Notice

Shemot: A Path to Follow

Explore water, light and fire in Moses’ life and investigate a puzzle….

“She named him Moses, for I have pulled him from the water.” [Shemot/Exodus 2:4]

There is a rule that when we have a combination of light, water and fire, the creature whose soul (essence) consists of fire can elevate itself to the level of water, whereas the creature whose essence is water can elevate itself to the level of light. Seeing that Moses was essentially connected to water, having been “pulled from the water,” he can elevate himself to the level of light. This principle is alluded to in Exodus 34,29 “Moses was unaware that the skin of his face radiated light.” Continue reading Shemot: A Path to Follow

Vezot Ha-Berakhah: A Path to Follow

“So Moses the servant of the LORD died there…” 34:5

Did Moses record this and the final eight lines of the Torah?

This question has engendered an intense, millenia-long conversation on the nature of Torah and prophecy. It is one of the topics covered in depth in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations. And his text is a great place to begin exploring this concept.
Continue reading Vezot Ha-Berakhah: A Path to Follow

Haazinu: A Path to Follow

As we near the end of Deuteronomy/Devarim and prepare to begin the cycle again, I think it’s worth taking a few moments to notice the differences between translations/commentaries. Even when the English does not appear to vary much, each translation/commentary shifts the focus slightly. Take, e.g., Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:2:

May my discourse [likchi] come down as the rain [matar],
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers [se’irim] on young growth,
Like droplets [re’vivim] on the grass. — Plaut/JPS (also Plaut/Stein)
Continue reading Haazinu: A Path to Follow

Ki Teitzei: Great Source(s)

Many commentators remark on the injunction to remember Miriam’s tzaarat [skin condition] (Devarim/Deuteronomy 24:9). It is the only mention of her in Deuteronomy. Moses’ sister, unnamed, appears in Exodus/Shemot 2:1-10; Miriam is mentioned by name in Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21 and Numbers/Bamidbar 12:1 and 20:1.

Tzaarat and Zipporah

In Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam, “Our Daughters” ask why Miriam is mentioned only at this point in Deuteronomy and in connection with tzaarat:

BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR ANSWERS: To understand what’s going on we need to widen our lens to take in all of chapter 24 of Deuteronomy. The first four verses discuss the case of a man who sends away his wife because he finds her “obnoxious” but then wants her back, which is forbidden by law. The fifth verse instructs a man to “GIVE HAPPINESS TO THE WOMAN HE HAS MARRIED.” Both cases might apply to Moses himself: In Exodus, we’re told that Jethro brought Zipporah and her two sons back to Moses “AFTER SHE HAD BEEN SENT HOME” (18:2); no reason is given for her having been sent away.
Continue reading Ki Teitzei: Great Source(s)