“The Circumcision of Eliezer: A Message for Busy Parents”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, Moshe emerges as the leader of Israel and begins the sacred mission of taking the people of Israel out of slavery from Egypt.

G-d has appeared to Moshe in the burning bush, and despite his reluctance, Moshe assumes the mantle of leadership for this great and historic task. Moshe requests permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to leave Midian and return to Egypt. With the staff of G-d in hand, Moshe begins the journey back to the land of Pharaoh, together with his wife and his sons.

On the way back to Egypt, Moshe and his family spend the night at an inn. Suddenly, Moshe’s life is threatened, Exodus 4:24: “Va’yif’g’shay’hu Hashem, va’y’vah’kesh hamito,” And G-d encountered him and sought to kill him. Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife, immediately takes a flintstone and cuts off the foreskin of her son, touches it to his feet, and says: (Exodus 4:25) “Kee chatan dah’mim ah’tah lee,” You are a bridegroom for bloodshed. Scripture then tells us that he released him, and once again Tzipporah says, (Exodus 4:26) “Chatan dah’mim lah’moo’lot,” a bridegroom’s bloodshed because of circumcision.

This strange, indeed mysterious, interlude is tackled by many biblical commentators who offer a host of explanations in their attempts to clarify the strange goings-on here.

Careful readers must have certainly spotted to an obvious textual issue. Scripture says in Exodus 4:20 that Moshe took his wife and his “sons” and mounted them on the donkey for the trip back to Egypt. How could that be? We know of only one son, Gershom, who, in Exodus 2:22, was reported to have been born. Who is this second son? We learn later in Exodus 18:4, that there is a second son, Eliezer, but his birth is never reported in the text. Perhaps Moshe received his “marching orders” from the “Chief,” and had to leave so quickly that there just was no time to report that Eliezer was born. It may sound cute, but something like that probably happened. As Moshe was about to leave Midian with his family, a child was born.

Now please recall that the mitzvah of “Brit Milah,” circumcision, had been given to Abraham as recorded in Genesis 16. Circumcision had already been practiced by Abraham’s descendants for several generations. So it is quite clear that Moshe was obligated to perform this mitzvah on his newborn son.

Rashi cites a Talmudic midrash, recorded in Nedarim 31b and 32a, that maintains that an angel sought to kill Moshe because he failed to circumcise his son, Eliezar. Rabbi Josee says, G-d forbid, it wasn’t that Moshe was negligent, but rather that he had to decide, shall I circumcise my son now and subject the infant to danger by beginning our journey to Egypt? I could tarry three days in Midian for the child to recover, but, after all, G-d commanded me to go to Egypt. Instead, Moshe begins the journey without performing the ritual, hoping to find an appropriate time to circumcise the child. Moshe, says Rashi, was held culpable, because when he finally arrived at the inn, instead of performing the circumcision immediately, he busied himself with making arrangements for his own lodging.

Perhaps the issue was something more than just Moshe’s indecision regarding exposing the child to danger. Perhaps Moshe felt that he had been commanded by G-d to go to Egypt to save millions of Jewish lives–-which takes precedence over the personal mitzvah to circumcise his child? Shall I tarry in Midian, or on the road, thought Moshe, to circumcise the child, while millions of Jewish lives are at stake?

Although Moshe was a reluctant leader, once he accepted the role of leader, he did so with consummate devotion. Based on his compelling logic, Moshe decides not to tarry, and postpones the circumcision. G-d, or the angel of G-d, finds his decision inappropriate and seeks to kill Moshe. Were it not for Tzipporah, Moshe would have died. In effect, G-d informs Moshe, that while you may be the leader of all of Israel, you may not neglect your own family. I, says G-d, will assume responsibility for the child’s health and well-being. You, Moshe, must circumcise the child, and then, and only then, may you continue on your mission.

This profound message applies to all parents, leaders and successful business people who seem to have time for everybody but their own closest relatives.

Moshe almost dies. Tzipporah saves him at the last moment. Has Moshe learned his lesson? Not at least according to the commentators in parashat Ba’ha’alot’cha, Numbers 12, where a similar issue arises.

Miriam speaks against Moshe. Her complaint is that Moshe has neglected his family, has left his wife, because he was overly preoccupied with tending to the flock of the Al-mighty–the People of Israel. And while G-d punishes Miriam for questioning Moses’s devotion to G-d and the Jewish people, Rabbinic tradition sees it otherwise. From the biblical texts, it seems that Moshe has a much stronger relationship with Aaron’s four sons than with his own children. In fact, except for recording their births and genealogies, Gershom and Eliezar are never really spoken about in the Bible. Beyond that, our rabbis point to a passage in Judges 18:30, asserting that Yehonatan, Moses own grandson, became the minister of an idolatrous cult that the tribe of Dan established in the North.

All this brings to mind Dennis Prager’s insightful quip: “No man has ever said on his dying bed, ‘Oh, why didn’t I spend more time in the office?'” We have much to learn from Moses our Master.

May you be blessed.