By: Batya Hefter
Following an arduous negotiation, God finally persuades a reluctant Moshe to accept his role as the redeemer of Israel. As Moshe departs to Egypt, spending the night at an inn, we are told of a most baffling incident: God threatens Moshe’s life: “And it came to pass on the way, in the place where they spent the night, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him. Zippora took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and cast it as his (Moshe’s) feet…” (Shmot 4:24-25).
What is the meaning of this enigmatic story? Why does God want to kill Moshe, and why is he saved by the act of circumcision?
In order to answer these questions we first have to understand Moshe’s personality. In chapter two, we meet Moshe as a grown man who identifies with his brothers and empathizes with their pain, but above all, as one who lacks tolerance for injustice and falsehood: “And it came to pass in those days, when Moshe was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens; and he noticed an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Shmot 2:12-13).
Two other episodes strengthen the impression that Moshe cannot tolerate injustice. In the first, he sees that “two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that was in the wrong, why do you smite your fellow?” (Shmot 2:13). The second episode occurs after Pharaoh’s decree to kill Moshe. Fleeing Egypt toward Midyan, Moshe witnesses the harassment of Yitro’s daughters by local shepherds. Once again Moshe doesn’t stand by but delivers the daughters from their oppressor.
If Moshe is intolerant of injustice, why is he so reluctant to accept this mission and save his oppressed brothers? He refuses no less then five times! (Shmot 3:7-12, 4:1-1)
The more familiar reading explains that Moshe is reluctant to go because he lacks leadership qualities. He has ‘uncircumcised lips,’ ערל שפתים meaning he has a speech impediment, that he lacks self-confidence, or has poor rhetorical skills.
However, I believe that Moshe’s resistance is rooted in his revulsion toward the world of falsehood–in Chassidic jargon, the ‘world of sheker’ עלמא דשקרא. The MHS explains that Moshe’s intolerance is directed towards Pharaoh. When Moshe fled from Pharaoh to save his life, he was really fleeing the corruption of Pharaoh’s world, a world where Pharaoh masquerades as God.
Unless Moshe could overcome his intolerance and engage with Pharaoh, there would be no redemption. In that sense, Moshe’s virtue is simultaneously his greatest handicap; his deep-seated intolerance of injustice and falsehood is a virtue but also an obstacle to his ability to lead the people out of Egypt.
Let us now turn to the symbolic meaning of the brit milah. It seems odd that the covenant between God and Israel is the cutting off the foreskin from the male sexual organ. The midrash teaches:
“And when after my skin is destroyed, then through my flesh shall I see God’ (Job 29:26). Avraham said, “‘when through my flesh shall I see God’: Had I not done so, why should God have revealed Himself to me?” Therefore, And the Lord appeared to him” (Bereishit Rabbah 48).
Expanding on this midrash, the Sefat Emet explains that “In every thing there is a point of Divine vitality. We only need to remove the external and outer shell which is called the ‘orlah,’ the covering of the brit. The removal of the orlah reveals the Source of Life. That is what is meant when it says God appeared to Avraham after his circumcision. The inner source of Divine life, which prior to circumcision was hidden and covered by the orlah, is revealed: “Through my flesh I shall perceive God” (3).
The orlah symbolizes the veil that obscures the Source of Life, namely God. It is for this reason that circumcision symbolizes the covenant between Israel and God. Even though this world may appear to be godless, God is there, albeit hidden, in this world. It is the task of the Jewish People to cast away the veil so that all may behold God, the Creator and Guardian of the world.
Moshe himself symbolizes God’s hiddenness, in that Moshe himself is ערל שפתים: He cannot communicate God’s reality to the world. Moshe prefers his intimate pure relationship with God to remain uncontaminated by the sheker of Pharaoh’s reality. According to this reading, Moshe’s hesitation to circumcise his children symbolizes his reluctance to reveal God as the Source of Life.
The act of circumcision is the act of revealing God as the Source of Life. Moshe refuses to compromise his integrity by engaging in the world, to reveal God in this imperfection. God, however, has determined that despite the imperfections, the sheker, He will redeem His people. Moshe’s refusal to circumcise his children at the inn is a reflection of his resistance to redeem God’s people. It is for this reason that God seeks to kill him at the inn.
God has chosen Moshe precisely because he is intolerant of injustice. Moshe, like God, desires that the righteous prevail and the wicked be brought to justice, but God must teach Moshe to be patient so that he can become a vehicle to bring about the redemption.
God’s lesson to Moshe is symbolized at the sneh. According to the midrash, God’s revelation at the sneh is an expression of his ‘long-suffering’ nature, “עמו אנוכיי בצרה”. For Moshe—indeed, for any leader–to effect change, he must combine the Divine attributes of zeal for injustice and intolerance of falsehood with the attributes of patience and long-suffering.