Moses and Tzipporah at the Inn - Part 1
Moses and Tzipporah at the Inn
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Every hero has an origin story. We are all familiar with Moshe’s origin story. But there is one episode in the story that actually seems quite unfamiliar.
On the road back to Egypt with his wife Tzipporah and their two sons, Moshe and his family stop at an inn when the strangest thing happens. God tries to kill Moses! Fortunately, level-headed Tzipporah saves the day by circumcising their second son and then the story suddenly ends. (Yes, this is a real story from the Chumash! Look it up! It’s Exodus 4:24-26.)
What a strange story!
God was the One who sent Moses to Egypt. Moshe was doing what God told him to do! So why would God try to kill him?! Talk about shooting the messenger!
In this newly remastered and reanimated video series, Rabbi Fohrman weaves an interpretation of this story into a larger, magnificent tapestry shedding new light on our origin story - The Exodus.
The general thing I'd like to talk about with you is the Moses origin story. The very first part of the story that we retell every Passover, the story of shibud Mitzrayim (enslavement to Egypt) and yetzi'at Mitzrayim (Exodus from Egypt). If you think about it, much of that story is not the national story of our enslavement or redemption. If that was the only thing that we were interested in, that would be the only story that's there in the Chumash, but woven into that story is a story of one person, one man and his origin story.
It's such a good story. There's all these interesting things that happen. It's Moses and he's born at a time when babies are being thrown into the Nile and he's saved by this miraculous act of kindness on the part of the daughter of Pharaoh. He runs away, hangs out in Midian, encounters God in the burning bush. We hear about all of these things. His story somehow is woven into the story of the nation and the question is how do we understand that story?
And here, it might be helpful to retreat to some basic principles of storytelling or screenwriting as it were. Aaron Sorkin, for those of you who are familiar with his work, West Wing, Newsroom, other kinds of things. So he taught a class on screenwriting not too long ago and one of his arguments, he says, you know, if you're trying to write a movie or if you're trying to write a play, what makes for a story, right. What's the essence of a story?
Two things; intention and obstacle. It's got to be some basic intention. You want to get to Philadelphia for a job interview, whatever it is. You got to -- you want something really bad and then there's got to be some obstacle, something formidable that's standing in your way. Your car's broken down, you don't have money for a train. All you have is $15 in your pocket, but you got to get to Philadelphia, so now you have a story. You have an intention and you have an obstacle, what's going to be? That's the story.
The question is, if the Moses origin story is a story, what's the intention, what's the obstacle? If you could answer that question, you know what the story's about. If we can understand that, we can understand what the story is and if we can understand that, perhaps we can understand how it's a part of our national story of redemption. That's the general thing I want to discuss with you.
But there's also a particular thing I want to discuss with you and it's actually the climax to the Moses origin story. Every good story has a climax. What is the climax of the Moses origin story? Where do you usually have a climax in a story? At the end of the story. It brings us to the question, where is the end of the Moses origin story? When does the story stop being about Moses and start being about the people?
I want to argue that the climax to the Moses origin story is actually one of the most inexplicable episodes of the entire Torah, one of the strangest things that ever happens.What story am I talking about? The story of Moses and Tzipporah at the inn. What a strange story.
The burning bush has happened, Moses takes his wife, his children, puts them on a donkey and he heads back to Egypt. On the way, God has one last thing to tell him. By the way, Moses, as you're going to return to Egypt, remember at the burning bush I gave you three signs. They're going to come in handy when you appear before Pharaoh. Don't get too discouraged. "Ani achazeik et libo," I'm telling you now, I'm going to harden his heart. He's not going to send out the people, but you just tell him, "va'omar eilecha shalach et b'ni," that God says send out My child, "v'ya'avdeini," so that he can serve Me. You warn him, that if he dares not send out My kid, not send out the Jewish People, "hinei anochi horeig et bincha b'chorecha," I'm going to kill his firstborn. That's what you tell Pharaoh, so you don't worry about a thing. You've got your signs, you've got your speech, you're good to go.
Now, if I just stopped right there and I said okay, on a scale from 1 to 10, how do you think God and Moses are doing? How are things going between God and Moses, with zero being absolutely terrible and 10 being really wonderful?
It's pretty good, right? A solid eight. God's pretty happy. The burning bush, He's got Moses, it's like, don't worry about a thing. Don't get depressed if Pharaoh says no. It's going to be great. Right. That's what it sounds like. It's a great relationship. Which makes the very next verse almost impossible to read.
"Vayehi baderech," and on the way, "bamalon," at a hotel that night, "vayifgisheihu Hashem," God met up with Moses, "vayivakeish hamito," and tried to kill him. How do you even read those words, He tried to kill him, He wanted to kill him.
Tzipporah, somehow knows what's wrong, "vatikach Tzipporah tzor," so Tzipporah takes this rock. She realizes oh my gosh, we forgot to do milah on our child. We forgot to circumcise our child. She performs -- it's emergency surgery, emergency circumcision. "Vatichrot et arlat b'nah vatag l'raglav vatomer," and then she says, "chatan damim atah li," you're a bridegroom of blood to me. "Vayiref mimenu az amrah chatan damim lamulot," you're a bridegroom of blood to me through this circumcision. That's the story. Then, as if nothing happened, "vayomer Hashem el Aharon," God says to Aaron, "leich likrat Moshe hamidbarah," go greet Moses in the desert, and they greet each other and they meet up and it's really wonderful.
This is really the last episode in the Moses origin story. From here on in it's all about us. It's all about the battle between Moses and Pharaoh over will the Jews go. Right? This is the culmination of his story. What a weird culmination. But you'd expect in the climax to see a resolution of the intention and the obstacle, so what is the intention? What is the obstacle in this story? What's this story all about and what in the world is this strange climax, is this story of Moses and Tzipporah at the inn doing here? How do we understand it, why would God want to kill Moses at this last minute? It's the strangest thing.
To begin to explain it, I want to begin by talking a little bit about the story that precedes this one; the story of the burning bush itself. A lot of things happen in the story of the burning bush, but it's a long extended conversation between God and Moses. It strikes me that there are two big questions at the heart of this story.
Two things are weird. It's really the same question, but you can ask the question from God's perspective or you can ask the question from Moses' perspective. It's just two sides of the coin. The easiest way to see the weirdness is to kind of put yourself in Moses' shoes for a moment. So I'm going to take an involuntary volunteer. I'm going to elect Bobbee Feiner in the front row, over here. Bobbee, you're going to be my volunteer.
Right, so imagine, Bobbee, you're on the way to the shiur (class) tonight. You're driving in from Lawrence, right, you're coming with your husband, Dr. Feiner, and along the way you notice that on Rockaway Turnpike, there's this dumpster that's on fire. Right, a big dumpster fire.
All the cars are like passing by, but you decide that you'd like to stop and admire this dumpster fire, you know, your husband says, Bobbee can we keep on driving? You say no, no, no and you're looking at this thing and you're saying, dear, there's something strange about this dumpster fire. So he's like can we please keep on going. It's like, I'm telling you that garbage in the dumpster is burning, but it's not being consumed.
You're looking at this miracle, which by the way, if you think about it, wasn't such a great miracle. Most people wouldn't notice. Three elephants flying around a rock, that would have gotten Moses' attention; a burning bush, not so much. But for some reason God decides no, this is the perfect miracle and Moses realizes it and Bobbee realizes it and stops, watches this miracle. And no sooner Bobbee, do you notice this dumpster fire, then you say oh my gosh, the fire it's burning, but it's not being consumed. An angel appears out of the fire and says ‘Bobbee, Bobbee’ and you say ‘hineini, here I am’.
Then the angel gives you the mission. And now, if I just said to you, Bobbee, how do you see the next five or 10 years of your life playing out? And maybe Bobbee would have given me this idea oh, well, here I am. I'm in Lawrence and I have my children off in Israel and I go visit them and my husband has his practice here and I'm involved in all of these organizations. She has this vision of what her life looks like over here, but all of a sudden, in a flash, the angel upends that vision and the angel says, Bobbee, I am an angel of the Lord and I have a job for you.
Now, most people who would see an angel of the Lord, right, you know, you wouldn't really believe it's an angel of the Lord. You'd think, you know, I took one too many Valium last night or something and you think maybe you're hallucinating, but the angel says, you know, you're going to go to sleep tonight and in the morning you'll notice that there'll be a check underneath your pillow drawn on the bank of heaven for $543,000.21. And in fact, you wake up and there's this check and you cash the check and it clears so you know it was true, but the check is there for your purpose. Your purpose is that you're supposed to enter politics and you're supposed to run for a seat in the New York State Senate because there's some very important business that God wants you to get involved in, in the New York State Senate.
You're sure that it's God because you -- the check cleared and the miracle is there. You're absolutely sure it's true, but this is not what you planned. You had other plans. You were going to visit your kids and the last thing you want to do is enter politics, but the angel says no, this is your destiny. This is the Almighty speaking. It's your destiny.
Bobbee, what would you do?
Bobbee: This is what bothered me about the story.
Rabbi Fohrman: This is what bothered you about the story (laughs).
Bobbee: I never understood why Moses protested too much. I wouldn't have protested.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right? Most people would say hey, you know, I had a different vision, but You're God, right. I'm just trying to serve You. If this is what I'm supposed to do, I'm good.
How come Moses doesn't do that? Moses spends his entire time, at the burning bush, finding one reason after another to say no. One excuse after another. No, I can't. I won't. It'll never work. Pharaoh will never listen to me. The people, they're going to want Your name, what am I ever going to tell them? They're never going to believe. It's not going to be true. Besides, I've got this burnt tongue. [Gibberish] I can't speak well. One excuse after another.This is the great Moses, what is he doing saying no? To me, this is the great question of the story, how come he says no?
The flip side to that question is a question you can ask about God. Put yourself in God's shoes. You're God, You pick this guy, Moses, You show him the miracle, he knows it's You, You give him the mission. I want you to go. I need a guy on the ground to go to Pharaoh, and all he could tell You is no. Not once, not twice, not three times, five times he says no. You're God, what would You do?
Right, I mean, like, at some point either You would say hey, look, we're done arguing. I'm the Master of the Universe, making an executive decision here, you're going. Right? Something like that, that's one option. Another option is okay, look, I'm not going to argue with you forever. You know, once, twice, three times okay, we'll move on. There's many fish in the sea. I'll find somebody else. Right? You're obviously the wrong guy.
So you tell me. If you're God, why do you not move on? What's the only way you could explain why you don't move on? It must be that there's something unique about this individual. You can't move on. You do not have the option of moving on. It must be that there's some sort of prerequisite. There's some sort of job description for what it takes to do this job and the only one who meets the criteria is this guy. It's this guy or nothing because if it wasn't this guy you would move on.
So now, the next question is, okay, so if that's true, what's so special about this guy? How come he's so special?
And now, let's get back to the question of why Moses was saying no and let's think about that a little bit. Why did Moses say no over and over again; five different times, five different excuses?
Let me ask you a question, as a parent, you tell your kid to go clean his room. The kid comes back to you with an excuse, you shoot it down. Still the kid doesn't clean his room. He comes back to you with a different excuse. You shoot it down. The kid argues it again, a third excuse, a fourth excuse. You shoot it down. Five different excuses.
What's the real reason the kid doesn't want to clean his room? Is it one of the five excuses? Probably not. It's something else. It's something more fundamental than the five excuses. Now, the question is so what's the reason? It must be something he's not saying. Something he doesn't want to say.
So again, if we look at the question from Moses' perspective or if we look at the question from God's perspective, we can isolate these two questions down to the following core. From God's perspective, what's so special about this guy that You can't move on? From Moses' perspective, what's the real reason you won't go?
Now, I want to suggest to you that maybe -- just maybe -- those two questions answer each other. In other words, maybe that which makes Moses special is the reason he won't go. Somehow, the story of Moses and Tzipporah at the inn is tied into all of that.