A Bird in the Hand - Yitro
וישמע יתרו כהן מדין חתן משה את כל אשר עשה א-לקים למשה ולישראל עמו כי הוציא ה' את ישראל ממצרים. ויקח יתרו חתן משה את צפרה אשת משה אחר שלוחיה. ואת שני בניה אשר שם האחד גרשם כי אמר גר הייתי בארץ נכריה. ושם האחד אליעזר כי א-לקי אבי בעזרי ויצלני מחרב פרעה. ויבא יתרו חתן משה ובניו ואשתו אל משה אל המדבר אשר הוא חנה שם הר הא-לקים. ויאמר אל משה אני חתנך יתרו בא אליך ואשתך ושני בניה עמה. ויצא משה לקראת חתנו וישתחו וישק לו וישאלו איש לרעהו לשלום ויבאו האהלה. (שמות יח, א-ז)
This week we read about the greatest event in the history of the world, after the Creation of the world itself. Matan Torah was in essence a restoration of the world to its original state of the Creation, before Adam and Chava sinned. We also encounter an iconic figure, Yitro, after whom the parsha is named, the subject of last year’s shiur. It is on these two momentous highlights that the focus of the perushim is centered and in their dazzling glare, one other important figure in the parsha is “eclipsed” and almost missed. I would like to devote this week’s shiur to discussing Tzipporah, the wife of Moshe.
What we know about Tzipporah is learnt from snippets here and there in the Torah, embellished by Midrashim and the Gemara. I cannot promise that at the end of this shiur we will know exactly who Tzipporah was, but I am hoping that it will stimulate thought for further exploration and understanding.
We first encounter Tzipporah in parshat Shmot (2, 21) when Moshe flees Egypt to Midyan and rescues the daughters of Yitro from the other shepherds at the well. Yitro gives his daughter Tzipporah to Moshe as a wife.
The second mention of Tzipporah in the Torah is two chapters later, Shmot (4, 24), when Moshe returns to Egypt on HKB”H’s behest to redeem Am Yisrael. Before reaching Egypt, Moshe stops off at an inn on the way and HKB”H wants to kill him for not circumcising his son Eliezer. Tzipporah saves the day by taking a stone knife and performing the brit milah.
In this week’s parsha we hear about Tzipporah for the third time when Yitro reunites with Moshe and brings Tzipporah and Moshe’s two sons with him. Why Tzipporah and their children were not already with Moshe – the last we heard is that they went with him to Egypt – is elucidated in the Mechilta. When Moshe returned to Egypt with his family, he met up again with Aharon his brother, who advised him not to allow his wife and children to return with him to Egypt and subject them to slavery and bondage, but rather to send them back to Midyan and Yitro, which Moshe did. This is hinted at in the passuk in our parsha אחר שלוחיה.
The final mention of Tzipporah in the Torah is the incident of Miriam slandering Moshe that he divorced Tzipporah עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח (Bamidbar 12, 1).
Getting back to this week’s parsha. In the first seven psukkim there are no less than three references to Moshe’s wife and children – “Yitro takes Tzipporah, after Moshe sent her away and Gershom and Eliezer”. “And Yitro came to the desert with Moshe’s wife and sons”. “And Yitro says, here I am and your wife and sons are with me”.
Why the repetition? It would have been enough to say it the first time – OK we got it! But no, the Torah repeats it a second time and a third …. and after all that repetition …. Moshe does not get it, or at least that is the פשט from the psukkim. There is no mention of how Moshe hugged his wife and his sons and cried on their shoulders after such a long separation. Nada! The passuk says that Moshe went out to greet his father in law! No mention is made of Tzipporah and their sons. The following psukkim all center around Yitro. Tzipporah and their children are sidelined. At least that is how it appears from the פשט.
What is going on here? Who was Tzipporah? What was her true relationship with Moshe? What was Moshe’s relationship with his wife and sons?
To get a little perspective on all these isolated snippets mentioned in the Torah, I would like to explore an incredible insight by Rebi Tzaddok HaCohen of Lublin in his sefer תקנת השבים (סימן ו, מז-נד). Rebi Tzaddok takes us back to the beginning to help us understand Tzipporah’s origins – Midyan. Who was Midyan?
After the Akeida and after Sarah died, the Torah tells us how Avraham remarried Hagar (she is referred to as Keturah) and one the sons born from this union was Midyan.
Avraham’s single-most typifying attribute was חסד. Every attribute, regardless of how positive it is, unless it is limited and channeled, can be destructive – even חסד. We read in Mincha of Yom Kippur from parshat Acharei Mot of a forbidden sexual relationship between a brother and a sister, referred to there as חסד. Unbridled חסד leads to licentiousness. Until Avraham was commanded to perform brit milah and until the Akeida, his חסד was unbridled. We see this when he negotiated with HKB”H to save Sdom, a city of wicked people – typical of חסד without limits.
Avraham’s first son Yishmael was born during this period and subsequently his חסד was limitless and he became a פרא אדם, typified by licentiousness. After the brit milah and the Akeida however, Avraham’s attribute of חסד became “tempered” by Yitzchak’s attribute of גבורה. Midyan was born after this, so Midyan, unlike Yishmael, inherited the attribute of “channeled חסד” from Avraham,. How did this manifest itself? Midyan, being a descendent of Avraham became the “elite” of the goyim, representing a “civilized” cultural approach, as opposed to the “uncivilized”, wild approach of Yishmael.
Midyan therefore have in their genetic makeup a double edged sword. On the one hand, being descendants of Avraham with the attribute of controlled חסד, they have an affinity and are attracted to Am Yisrael, out of love. On the other hand they are not Am Yisrael and do not have all our Torah values - so they potentially pose a threat. In contemporary terms it can be compared to those goyim who love Am Yisrael and want to be associated with Am Yisrael. On the one hand this association can be positive, via converting to Judaism and becoming part of Am Yisrael. One the flip side, the dangerous side, they can cause Am Yisrael to assimilate with them – wanting for us to be like them, out of love, not animosity.
When the brothers sold Yosef to the Midyanim, they did so believing that Yosef was actually a “Midyani” - that he possessed the attributes and philosophy of Midyan. The brothers did not know that their generation was different to the prior generations of the Avot, where some of the sons were tzaddikim and others not. They could see that Yosef epitomized (and will also in the time of Mashiach) the statesman, representing “cooperation” between Am Yisrael and the goyim, involvement in their government, diplomacy, etc. as Yosef did in Egypt. They believed him to be the negative side of Midyan that wanted to sever Am Yisrael from their roots by assimilation. The selling of Yosef followed the order of Midyan-Egypt-Am Yisrael. Yosef was sold to the Midyanim, who then sold him to Potiphar, after which he eventually became viceroy over Egypt and finally this culminated with the rest of his family going down to Egypt and becoming Am Yisrael.
Moshe on the other hand followed the reverse order – Am Yisrael-Egypt-Midyan. Moshe started off being born to to Amram and Yocheved as part of Am Yisrael, but was then brought up in Pharaoh’s home like an Egyptian and finally Moshe went to Midyan and married Tzipporah.
As Rebi Tzadok says above, Midyan have a natural affinity to Am Yisrael, so it is not surprising that Tzipporah was attracted to Moshe, not on a superficial level, but on a much deeper level. The Midrash (ילקוט שמעוני, שמות, רמז קס"ח) tells us that Yitro initially imprisoned Moshe for ten years and did not feed him. Tzipporah secretly fed and gave Moshe to drink. After ten years, believing Moshe was long dead, Tzipporah revealed to her father that Moshe was still alive and it was only then that Yitro developed an affinity for Moshe and allowed him to marry his daughter. Of Pharaoh’s three advisors, Bilam, Iyov and Yitro, it was Yitro who left when Pharaoh decreed death to the Israelite firstborns.
Tzipporah represented the positive side of the affinity to Am Yisrael and converted long before her father. Initially Yitro represented the “cultured”, “civilized” approach, typical of the elite of the goyim, but only due to his daughter’s true, positive love for Moshe did he eventually get to the stage where he too converted.
Just as Tzipporah and Yitro were exposed to Moshe, so was Moshe exposed to Tzipporah and Yitro and for the first time experienced the “elite” of the goyim and their potential. Moshe, believing that יציאת מצרים was the redemption of אחרית הימים, did what is defined as the purpose of Am Yisrael and the Mashiach לתקן עולם במלכות ש-ד-י. In אחרית הימים there is going to be both a war to eradicate Amalek who reject HKB”H and thus represent the antithesis to Am Yisrael and also a reconciliation with the elite of the nations who will come to recognize HKB”H sovereignty. The vision of Mashiach does not entail only the survival of Am Yisrael and the eradication of all the goyim, but a “cooperation” between the two out of recognition of HKB”H. It was for this reason Moshe accepted the conversion of the erev rav, believing that יציאת מצרים was actually אחרית הימים, which we now know it was not (it had all the potential to be if Am Yisrael had not sinned – ironically due to the influence of - the erev rav).
We see the flip side of Midyan’s affinity to Am Yisrael and how dangerous it can be when Bilam advised Balak to corrupt Am Yisrael with the daughters of Midyan, causing them to assimilate and sin. We see this “duality” of Midyan when Zimri challenges Moshe for the right to marry a Midyanite woman, much like Moshe married Tzipporah. The difference being that Tzipporah represented the positive side of the affinity whereas Kozbi bat Tzur represented the negative.
Tzipporah’s love for Moshe stemmed initially from the genetic positive affinity of Midyan for Am Yisrael, but developed into something beyond that. She converted and became part of Am Yisrael and part of her husband Moshe and his nation’s destiny. As a result she merited Ruach Hakodesh.
When Moshe returned to Egypt and they were at the inn, it was Tzipporah who saw with Ruach Hakodesh what the solution was. According to the Zohar Hakadosh she saw a snake consume Moshe from his head down until the brit milah and thus understood what the problem was – that Eliezer had not yet been circumcised. Reb Chaim Moshe Efraim of Sudilkov in his sefer דגל מחנה אפרים (פר' שמות) says that Tzipporah knew she had to take a stone knife צֹר and perform the brit - the name צִפֹּרָה actually comprises the letters צֹר פֶה a stone knife and פֶה which in gematriya is מילה (interestingly the פה, the mouth is also the source of מילה, the spoken word).
Moshe, on the advice of Aharon and perhaps out of love for his family sent them away, back to Midyan, to spare them the suffering of slavery in Egypt, which they surely would have had to endure. It is one thing to accept on yourself מסירות נפש, but you have no right to demand it from someone else. However well-intentioned it may have been, Moshe’s decision had detrimental repercussions for his children. True, they never had to suffer in Egypt, but they were also deprived of witnessing all the miracles.
There is a dispute in Chazal whether Moshe’s reunion with Yitro and his family took place before or after Matan Torah. According to the opinion that it was after, this meant that his sons were also deprived of witnessing Matan Torah. This could account for the fact that Moshe’s sons did not reach the level of their father and did not inherit his role as leader. In fact the Yalkut Shimoni (שופטים יז) says that Moshe’s grandson was a priest for פסל מיכה.
If you follow the opinion that Yitro came after Matan Torah, it becomes clear why Moshe did not embrace his wife. In order to merit the level of prophecy that Moshe achieved he had to פורש from his wife. If you follow the opinion that it was before Matan Torah, then this behavior is inexplicable. Either way, why Moshe did not embrace his sons remains a question, to which I do not have an answer. Perhaps he did, but the Torah does not tell us.
Did Tzipporah accept this out of her love for Moshe. It appears that she did, but it left a scar. After the incident of Eldad and Medad who began prophesizing, the Midrash Tanchuma (פרשת צו, י"ג) quotes Tzipporah saying how bad she felt for Eldad and Medad’s wives, as their husbands would now have to פורש from them as Moshe did from her. Miriam overheard this and it was only then that she discovered this fact, it was not outwardly apparent. This led to her slandering Moshe.
The term אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית is explained by Chazal not as a term of detriment, but of praise. The Gemara (מועד קטן, טז, ב) explains the term to mean an elevated מדרגה of chassidut, aspiring to a higher standard of behavior. The Midrash (ילקוט שמעוני יהושע, א) lists several female converts who achieved a level of chassidut, including Hagar, Osnat, Tzipporah, Shifra, Puah, Bitya bat Pharoah, Rachav, Rut, and Yael eshet haKeini.
Did Moshe still love Tzipporah? We know from the Tanchuma above that at least outwardly, it was not apparent that Moshe had separated from Tzipporah. What Moshe felt in his heart, we don’t know. Moshe as leader and navi was required to פורש from her physically, but no mention is made of the emotional relationship they shared.
What about Moshe’s relationship with his sons? The Midrash (שמות רבה, פרשה ב) relates that Moshe pleaded with HKB”H to give מלכות and כהונה to his two sons. The request was denied as these had already been promised to Aharon and Yehuda, but it did not stop Moshe from asking. We see that Moshe yearned for his sons to follow in his footsteps, but de facto it turned out that they didn’t (as we see with Moshe’s grandson above).
We cannot possibly understand the burden of responsibility of a leader of the stature of Moshe Rabbeinu or the personal sacrifices that such a position entailed and the repercussions on the family members.
What we do know unquestioningly is that Tzipporah was a גרת צדק who merited Ruach Hakodesh, achieved the level of chassidut and unquestioningly supported Moshe in everything that he did, every step of the way, despite the personal cost.
Interestingly it was Moshe’s last official duty to take care of Midyan and meet out justice for the damage they inflicted on Am Yisrael in ba’al peor. It was closure of a circle that began decades before with a different side of Midyan, a positive side, reflecting what will eventually be when Mashiach comes באחרית הימים speedily in our days b”H.