May 25, 2018 |

Sh'mot - Daddy, why did G-d try to kill Moses?

Today at shul, we looked at Exod. 4:24-26, where G-d comes to Moses and Zipporah on the way to Egypt and seeks to kill Moses or Moses' son, and is dissuaded by Zipporah's hasty circumcision of her son. We discussed a lot of interesting translation problems in the passage -- was the intended victim Moses, Gershom, or Eliezer, were they at an inn or a camp, what does "chatan dimim" really mean -- but I want to focus on the forest here, not the trees: Why on earth would G-d want to kill Moses or his son?

It's such a bizarre event that most people just ignore it. If you asked casual synagogue-goers or Christians whether G-d tried to kill Moses or Moses' son, they would look at you like you were nuts. But there it is. So what could be the reason?

It's clear Moses should have had Gershom circumcised long before. Moses was circumcised himself (Pharoah's daughter recognized him as a Hebrew baby) so he knew it was needful; and Gershom is no infant anymore (the current Pharoah took the throne "a long time after" Gershom's birth, Exod. 2:23-24). Some rabbis suggest that Moses let Zipporah talk him into raising Gershom Midianite, clearly a problem. Still, the death penalty seems extreme.

I suggest we look at the context. What happens right before G-d's attack? The immediately preceeding words are, "Now I shall kill your firstborn son." Of course, G-d is not talking about Moses' son, he means Pharoah's (the Egyptians') son(s). Right? And yet, there G-d is in the very next verse trying to kill Moses' firstborn son. Clearly, there is a connection.

Look back a little further. Moses has just been giving his marching orders from the burning bush: Go to Egypt, tell the people to go, tell Pharoah to let them go, I'll smite the Egyptians, then they'll give you gold and drive you out. And Moses demurs. Oh, no, they won't believe me, I'm not a good public speaker, send someone else, on and on until G-d loses his temper. It's almost like Abraham arguing about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There's one big difference, though. Abraham is concerned about the innocent dying. Moses is concerned about, well, Moses. He doesn't even seem to notice the part about how G-d will "smite" the Egyptians.

Midrash tells us that when the angels cheered the destruction of the Egyptian army, G-d chastised them, saying "My children are killed, and you rejoice?" G-d holds the Israelites, miraculously delivered from imminent slaughter, to a lighter standard, and does not censure Miriam for the Song of the Sea. But surely G-d hopes for some better reaction from Moses in cooler blood.

There seems no other reason why G-d then explains the plan in more detail: "Tell Pharoah, 'you refuse to let my son Israel go, now I shall slay your first-born son.'" One can imagine G-d waiting for Moses to object again, this time on moral grounds. Aaaand [crickets].

Not one word from Moses about killing innocent children. No problem, kill all the Egyptians you want. Smite away.

Disturbing, isn't it? Not the empathy one needs in a leader. Moses hasn't progressed much from when he murdered that Egyptian overseer, an act of justice perhaps, but without mercy. How can Moses conduct negotiations with Pharoah blamelessly, or administer the Israelites righteously, if he does not care about people?

He can't. So now G-d has two choices. Ditch the whole plan, or teach Moses compassion. And that's why G-d goes after Gershom: to teach Moses, "there but for the Grace of God go I." In the face of G-d's might and wrath, the only difference between Moses' firstborn, and the firstborn of an Egyptian, is a little scrap of foreskin flesh.

Moses learns to fear G-d, and in that fear, to feel sympathy with other people. Only now is he ready to lead the exodus.

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Manny Jacobowitz

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Manny and his two kids are members of Congregation Beth Shalom. He approaches Torah as an actor and lawyer, looking for character motivation.

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