“The Circumcision of Eliezer: A Message for Busy Parents”
(updated and revised from Shemot 5762-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, Moses 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 Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-4:17), and, despite his reluctance, Moses assumes the mantle of leadership for this great and historic task. Moses requests permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to leave Midian and return to Egypt. With the staff of G-d in hand, Moses begins the journey back to the land of Pharaoh, together with his wife and his sons.

On the way back to Egypt, Moses and his family spend the night at an inn. Suddenly, Moses’ life is threatened, Exodus 4:24: וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ השׁם, וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתו , And G-d encountered him and sought to kill him. Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, immediately takes a flintstone and cuts off the foreskin of her son, touches it to his feet, and proclaims: (Exodus 4:25) כִּי חֲתַן דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי, “You are a bridegroom for bloodshed.” Scripture then informs us that Moses is released, and once again Tzipporah says, (Exodus 4:26) חֲתַן דָּמִים, לַמּוּלֹת, “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 an obvious textual issue. Scripture says in Exodus 4:20 that Moses 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 Moses 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 did probably happen–as Moses was about to leave Midian with his family, a child was born.

Now please recall, the mitzvah of “Brit Milah,” circumcision, had been given to Abraham as recorded in Genesis 17. Circumcision had already been practiced by Abraham’s descendants for several generations. So, it is quite clear that Moses 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 Moses because he failed to circumcise his son, Eliezar. Rabbi Josee says, “G-d forbid, it wasn’t that Moses 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, Moses begins the journey without performing the ritual, hoping to find an appropriate time to circumcise the child. Moses, 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 Moses’ indecision regarding exposing the child to danger. Perhaps, Moses 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 Moses, “to circumcise the child, while millions of Jewish lives are at stake?”

Although Moses was a reluctant leader, once he accepted the role of leader, he did so with consummate devotion. Based on his compelling logic, Moses decides not to tarry, and postpones the circumcision. G-d, or the angel of G-d, finds his decision inappropriate and seeks to kill Moses. Were it not for Tzipporah, Moses would have died. In effect, G-d informs Moses, 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, Moses, 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.

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

Miriam speaks against Moses. Her complaint is that Moses 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’ devotion to G-d and the Jewish people, Rabbinic tradition sees it otherwise. From the biblical texts, it seems that Moses 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 the insightful quip cited by Dennis Prager: “No man has ever said on his dying bed, ‘Oh, why didn’t I spend more time in the office?’”

There is much we can learn from the actions of Moses, our Master, about rebalancing our priorities in life to make certain that we dedicate sufficient quality and quantity time to the needs of our own families.

May you be blessed.