Shabbat Shemot: Behind the Mystery, Common Meaning

On this Shabbat we begin again to study Sefer Shemot, the Book of Names, as it is called in Hebrew. We know it as the Book of Exodus, after the first major event that takes place within it (the other, of course, being Matan Torah, the gift of Torah). As we are in the third year of the Triennial Cycle, we begin with Exodus 4.19, and read that Moshe, after years as a refugee from his home country, is about to return in order to take up his G*d-given task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Moshe had protested, tried to refuse, and argued with G*d, but finally agreed to take the job; it is difficult to fathom, therefore, why almost immediately afterward he experiences one of the stranger moments recorded in the entire Torah if not the entire Tanakh (the Jewish Bible):

וַיְהִ֥י בַדֶּ֖רֶךְ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֣הוּ ה’ וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ הֲמִיתֽוֹ
At a night encampment on the way, HaShem encountered him and sought to kill him.
וַתִּקַּ֨ח צִפֹּרָ֜ה צֹ֗ר וַתִּכְרֹת֙ אֶת־עָרְלַ֣ת בְּנָ֔הּ וַתַּגַּ֖ע לְרַגְלָ֑יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי
So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!”
וַיִּ֖רֶף מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אָ֚ז אָֽמְרָ֔ה חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת
And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4.24-26)

In her Countertraditions in the Bible, the scholar Ilana Pardes notes that the most fascinating part of this story is that G*d responds to Moshe’s wife Zipporah’s act by withdrawing. Zipporah has shielded her husband by means of this mysterious, magical act.

We might understand this strange story, in which the messenger is nearly killed before he has the chance to even deliver the message, as a foreshadowing of things to come, as commentator Moshe Greenberg suggests: there is premonition here of the final plague, as well as of the danger the Israelites must face. The act here of applying the blood to the legs is the same as that which will protect the entire Israelite people from mass death when they take the blood of the sacrificial lamb and apply it to their doorposts in Exodus 12.
There is a strong feminist strain in this story, highlighted by the way in which Zipporah acts here as savior. This is very much in line with the theme of female protectors who have emerged thus far: the two midwives who sabotage Pharaoh’s intended infanticide, Moshe’s mother who hides him from death, his sister Miriam who watches over him, the Egyptian princess who takes in this tiny “illegal alien” under her father’s nose. Moshe once saved Zipporah and her sisters from hostile shepherds, but on this occasion he is passive and needs her protection in turn. This strange nocturnal moment shows the fragility of patriarchal assumptions.
So far we can derive several learnings from this mysterious passage:
1. Ritual, even when you don’t quite understand why, is transformatively powerful.
2. Sometimes men are strong; sometimes women are strong.
3. All peoples share common mythical stories of what makes us human and our struggle for meaning.
The final lesson is a well-known one in Judaism: our formative stories are not only ours. The story of an epic Flood is shared in a number of variations throughout the ancient Near East, as are accounts of the world’s creation. This story as well bears an interesting similarly to an ancient Egyptian song of Isis and Osiris, who are both sister and brother as well as wife and husband. When Osiris is killed, Isis, in the guise of a bird of prey, revives him. And it happens that the Hebrew for “bird” is Zipporah.
Jews take part in a great sea of stories and happenings shared between all peoples. In this instance as well as the others mentioned, we as well as each people tell the story in our own unique way, coming to our own singular conclusions about its meaning and its impact upon our culture and our spirituality.
On the Shabbat may the stories you tell yourself about the meaning of your life, and share with those you love, bring you support and serenity.
hazak hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,
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