The only way out is through.
—“Servant to Servant,” Robert Frost
Nu, what does God want from us? This is one of the primary questions with which the Torah is concerned. The Torah is also, however, concerned with a much more disturbing question: does God want from us? Is God nochach — personal, revealed, demanding — or nistar — intangible, all-encompassing, unreachable?
The tension between the two possibilities is particularly apparent in parshat Shemot, in which within the course of six verses, God sends Moses to redeem the Israelites and then almost kills him (or, according to some commentators, his son):
And the LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’”
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 chatan-damim to me!” And when He let him alone, she added, “A chatan-damim lemulot.” (Ex. 4:21-26)
In the first three verses, God lays out what is essentially a summary of the first half of the book of Exodus: God will Moses to redeem the Israelites, force Pharoah to refuse to free them, and inflict a series of plagues on Egypt culminating with the death of the firstborn. Several important features of this address stand out:
- God is encountered through direct communication: God speaks to Moses.
- God carefully oversees history: God has designed the stages of Israel’s redemption, and all ensuing events will comprise part of his plan.
- God offers reasons for God’s actions: God will harden Pharoah’s heart so that he will not free the Israelites, and God wants to free the Israelites so that they will worship God.
- God enacts justice: those who oppress shall be punished.
The second set of verses presents a bizarre, ambiguous narrative. While Moses is traveling with his family, God attempts to kill either him or one of his sons. Zipporah saves whichever one of them is in danger by circumcising one of her sons, and then says to either Moses or one of his sons that he is a chatan-damim and a chatam-damim lemulot, phrase whose meanings are not quite clear.
Commentators have puzzled over these verses. According to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, God is punishing Moses for having failed to circumcise his second son, Eliezer, because he neither wants to delay his mission or endanger the child’s health by performing the operation before a difficult journey. Hizkuni and the Mechilta, d’Rabbi Ishmael, by contrast, believe the punishment is because of Moses’ agreement with his father-in-law, Yitro, to raise his first son, Gershom, as an idolater.
These comments obscure as much as they clarify. According to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, Moses had good reason not to circumcise his son — he simply wanted to follow God’s instructions to return to Israel without risking Eliezer’s life. Even if his calculus was not to God’s liking, does that merit a death sentence? And while Hizkuni and the Mechilta provide a more compelling rationale for murder, they seem out-of-step with the broader narrative. After having been contacted directly by God, would Moses really continue to raise his firstborn as a pagan?
The commentators are troubled by the possibility that there might be no reason for God to have acted in such a way. In Understanding Exodus, Moshe Greenberg notes that the story in verses 24-26 recalls the narrative of Jacob wrestling with an ish in Genesis. In both, Greenberg writes, “the attack [comes] at a moment fraught with susceptibility to harm – at night… on persons journeying toward danger – and that it was warded off, but at a cost to the survivors.” Unlike the medieval commentators, Greenberg believes both stories attest to the “irrational…[as] an accepted part of life.”
Certainly, the plain meaning of verses 24-26 offers a haunting and disturbing, irrational image of God that appears to contradict the image in verses 21-23:
- God is encountered through violence: Rather than experiencing God’s presence in direct communication, Moses’ family only learns of God’s presence through God’s attempt to kill one of them.
- God’s intentions are inscrutable: Despite having just sent Moses on a mission to save the Israelites, God now seeks his (or his son’s) destruction, even though this would appear directly counter to the plan God laid out in verses 21 through 23.
- God does not explain Godself: God does not tell Moses why God is angry, nor does God warn Moses before the latter commits (or fails to commit) whatever action led to God’s anger. It is left to Zipporah to deduce a possible explanation for God’s rage and a method of assuaging it.
- God’s will exists outside of morality: None of the characters, at least on the surface of the text, appear to have done wrong. If in fact God is angry that one of Moses’ sons was not circumcised, how can he have expected Moses to circumcise him in the absence of a command to do so? Rather than just, God seems to be capricious.
If there is not a “reason” for God’s punishment, what is the Torah trying to communicate by these three verses and their juxtaposition with the three preceding verses?
In The Voice of My Beloved Knocks, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik lays out a distinction “between an existence of fate and an existence of destiny.” He writes
An existence of fate… is an existence of duress… simply one line in a [long] chain of mechanical causality, devoid of significance, direction, and purpose, and subordinate to the forces of the environment into whose midst the individual is pushed, unconsulted by Providence…
An existence of destiny… is an active existence, when man confronts the environment into which he has been cast with an understanding of his uniqueness and value, freedom and capacity.
At first glance, the two descriptions of God in the above verses simply map on to “an existence of destiny” and “an existence of fate,” respectively. In the first three verses, the world has intelligible meaning and both Moses and the Israelites are told that they will serve a particular purpose. In the second three verses, Moses’ family is totally subject to forces beyond their control that operate according to an unintelligible structure.
What are we to make of the fact, though, that the order of existences is here reversed? The Torah seems to describe a spiritual regression from a weltanschauung of justice and order to one of randomness, a hallmark of paganism.
When we look more carefully, though, we see that the second triad represents not a contradiction of the first triad but rather a test of the degree to which the characters have internalized its core messages.
For the entirety of the time that Moses has been aware of his mission (since Ex. 3:4), he has been in direct communication with God (excluding verse 4:18). Verse 4:24 is the first moment in which Moses is without clear divine guidance. Verses 24 through 26 can therefore be seen as a test of Moses’ faith. Given how unsure Moses was of himself even when speaking to God, God must determine how Moses will fare without God’s obvious presence. Having been made aware of his “destiny,” will Moses return to a pagan “existence of fate” as soon as God is no longer perceptible?
The answer, it appears, is yes. As Greenberg notes, “Zipporah is the only unambiguous personage [in verses 24-26]. She takes the active role and this suggests that Moses will not, or for some reason cannot act.” As soon as God departs and the forces of nature appear arrayed against Moses, he is frozen.
Zipporah does what Moses cannot: remain faithful to God’s plan even in when God is in a state of hester panim. Even in the apparent absurdity of life, she commits herself and her child to the Abrahamic covenant through circumcision. The word used for “cut” in verse 25 comes from the same root as “to establish [a covenant],” as in Genesis 15:18 (“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abraham”).
Some commentators suggest that Zipporah has a more complex relationship to faith. Just after circumcising her son, she calls someone a chatan-damim, but once God has left, she refers to someone as chatan-damim lemulot. According to Ibn Ezra, both refer to her son Eliezer. At first, she blames him for the incident, telling him that on his account her husband would have died. How could Zipporah blame her infant son for God’s inexplicable response to something outside of his control? Only in a world with no intelligible moral framework could Eliezer be held accountable for the situation. If Zipporah subscribes to such a worldview, it may be that her circumcision of her son was merely automatic: faced with a violent God, she simply offered a blood sacrifice as any pagan would. Whether or not this is the case, once she has had a few moments to reflect, she offers a new interpretation of the situation soon after. According to Ibn Ezra, Zipporah’s second epithet means, “You are simply covered in blood.” She no longer holds Eliezer guilty: she knows that we are not responsible for the circumstances into which we are cast, but rather for the decisions we can make in light of those circumstances. Even if Zipporah’s action was just as instinctive as Moses’ inaction, it helps her arrive an interpretive framework that denies the automaticity of fate.
But why must God withdraw God’s presence in the first place? Why does God not remain in contact with Moses throughout his mission?
This question brings us to the second way in which the second triad of verses tests the characters’ understanding of what it means to live in a world governed by God. One accustomed to an existence of fate might hear God’s declaration of Israel’s purpose in verse 23 as simply describing a new heteronomy: the Israelites will be freed from bondage and turned back to monotheism, but their lives will still lack all agency.
Moses and Zipporah must be made to understand that God’s kingship does not free them from responsibility or undermine their autonomy. In fact, by withdrawing, God gives them the opportunity to grow and create meaning. Only in God’s absence does Zipporah express her faith and become an active character.
The lesson of the juxtaposition of the two triads – that God’s oversight of the world demands rather than precludes human participation – is expressed poignantly in the following verse:
The LORD said to Aaron, “Go to meet Moses in the wilderness.” He went and met him at the mountain of God, and he kissed him. (Ex. 4:27)
That God is directing events is evidenced by the fact that God had already sent Aaron to meet Moses and serve as his spokesman in advance of the latter’s protests about being a poor speaker (as we know from verse 14). And yet, God still requires Moses’ active participation: God’s intentions will only be actualized if Moses actually goes to meet Aaron. Though God commands Moses, he does not force him.
But how are we to emulate Zipporah and Moses’ faith in a world as violent and random as the second triad when we have never heard God speak, let alone reveal God’s plan in as stark terms as God does in the first?
In a ma’amar on parshat Matot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe writes:
If it appears sometimes that it is not within your power to fulfil a mitzvah… let your heart be certain that God has established and will established conditions such that you may fulfill the mitzvah completely. (Lik. Sichot v.13)
It is precisely in the apparently randomness of the world that we can feel – if only for a moment – God’s presence. The same forces that seem to constrain us are those that have borne us to a moment in which we can make a choice. Like Zipporah and Moses, we are only ever offered the opportunity to perform a mitzvah by events beyond our control. In chaining us to God’s plan, God makes us free.
 At least paganism as described by the Tanakh.
 From the fact that Zipporah circumcises her son, we can infer that she is aware of Moses’ Israelite heritage. It is hard to imagine a logical scenario in which Zipporah was aware of Moses’ ethnicity but not of his mission; if she were unaware of the latter, it would appear that he was simply an escaped slave headed back to his former masters – hardly a trip she would be likely to join, let alone one on which she would bring a young child. We can therefore also infer that she also knew of his purpose in returning to Egypt and had decided to join his effort.
 Hatan can be translated as husband and damim as blood, hence “the (potential) blood of my husband.”
 There is good reason to understand God as expressing just that. For the purposes of this paper, I will follow R. Soloveitchik’s assumption, drawn from the Rambam, that the Torah and halacha seek to foster autonomy rather than absolute submission.