At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. 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!" And when God let him alone, she added, "A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision." ~Exodus 4:24-26These verses, towards the end of this week's Torah portion, Sh'mot, have always seemed weird to me. They are out of place, a break in the narrative of Moses' first encounter with the Divine at the burning bush and his development as a leader.
In my chumash class at Pardes, we've been studying the book of Exodus all semester. More specifically, we've been studying Parshat Shmot all semester - we completed the first Torah portion of Exodus this week, just in time for it to be this week's portion. Studying it in this up-close, in-depth way gave me the chance to look at these verses on their own, rather than focusing on trying to place them within the narrative.
Rashi, the 12th century French commentator, in trying to understand why God is seeking to kill Moses, who has just been sent off to Egypt to free the Israelites, says that Moses didn't circumcise his son like he was supposed to, 8 days after his son's birth. However, he quotes Rabbi Yossi saying, "God forbid Moses was negligent! Moses said, 'I'll circumcise him and then I'll go out on a journey that's dangerous for the baby for the 3 days after his circumcision, instead I'll circumcise him and then stay put until he heals.'"
There's a conflict here between Moses' mission for the community and his responsibilities to his family and his son, a conflict that many people are personally familiar with. Moses' attempt to balance his communal and personal responsibilities almost led to his death! According to Rashi, these two are irreconcilable.
Ibn Ezra, a Spanish contemporary of Rashi, understands these odd verses by saying that circumcision can be postponed if the baby is ill or traveling, and that therefore Moses didn't circumcise his son on the 8th day so as not to delay in carrying out his mission from God. Ibn Ezra suggests that a messenger of God came to remind Moses to circumcise his child and then go on alone to Egypt, leaving the baby to recover with his mother at the night encampment. Ibn Ezra does not view the family's needs and the community's needs as completely in conflict, and finds a compromise allowing Moses to fulfill both, without neglecting his son or the Israelite people. This compromise requires the support of a third individual, Moses' wife Tzipporah, but with her help, he's able to find some balance in his life and his work.