The Fateful Vow

The Fateful Vow

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 4:23 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13;
29:22-23 (Ashkenaz);
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:27 p.m.

One of the most mysterious and intriguing incidents in the Bible occurs in Shemot, this week’s portion. Moses, after reluctantly accepting the task of leading the Israelites out of bondage, leaves Midian with his wife and two sons. Hashem instructs him on how to address Pharaoh: “And you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘so said Hashem, My firstborn son is Israel.’ So I say to you, send My son that he may serve Me. But you refused to send him out. Behold, I shall kill your firstborn son” [Exodus 4:22-23].

Notice that the first verse is second person speaking to third person. The second verse is first person addressing second person. Why the unusual shift?

We then read: “It was on the way, in the lodging, that Hashem encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood you are to me’ ” [Ex. 4:24-25].

What is the connection of the incident at the inn and the preceding instructions? Who does Hashem want to kill? Why does Zipporah perform the circumcision instead of Moses, since the father has the primary obligation to circumcise his son?

In order to answer these questions, let us fast forward to the Book of Judges, Chapters 17 and 18, to the story of Micah’s idol.

Micah, living in the time soon after Joshua’s death, had a sanctuary dedicated to idolatry that was centered on a graven image. A young Levite comes to Micah looking for a place to live. Micah asks him to become the priest for his sanctuary, and Micah would support him. The Levite accepts the offer.

“And the Levite vowed to dwell with the man” [Judges 17:11]. This exact verse, “vowed to dwell with the man,” is found in Scripture only one other time, in Shemot. But it is important to remember that here the vow concerns idolatrous worship.

Subsequently, men from the tribe of Dan come to Micah’s house, take the idol, and make an offer of their own to the Levite: Instead of being a priest in the house of one man, the Levite would be a priest to the same idol, but he would minister to the whole tribe of Dan.

We finally learn the identity of this priest, “Jonathan the son of Gershom the son of Menashe.” The letter nun in Menashe is elevated to indicate, via the unelevated letters, that Menashe is Moshe. Gershom was Moses’ firstborn son; Jonathan his grandson. “Both (Jonathan) and his sons were the priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the exile of the land” [Judges 18:30]. Moses’ grandson had become a priest to idolatry.

Let us return to this week’s portion. Moses escapes to Midian after killing an Egyptian. He comes to Jethro’s house, asks permission to marry Jethro’s daughter, and now we have the same verse as in the Micha story: “And Moses vowed to dwell with the man, and he [Jethro] gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses.” [Ex. 2:21].

We know the nature of the vow that the Levite gave in Judges but what vow did Moses give to Jethro? The Mechilta tells us that when Moses asked to marry Jethro’s daughter, Jethro agreed but with one condition: Moses had to vow that his firstborn would be dedicated to idol worship.

Now we can begin to re-examine the earlier verses: “And you (Moses) shall say to Pharaoh, so said Hashem, My firstborn is Israel. So I (Hashem) say to you (Moses), send out My son that he may serve Me, but you have refused to send him out. Behold I shall kill your firstborn (Gershom).”

There immediately follows the story of Hashem’s intending to kill “him” (Gershom), and Zipporah’s circumcision of her son. Moses cannot be the leader to take the children of Israel out of Egypt while his son is uncircumcised and dedicated to idolatry. Zipporah had to perform the circumcision because Moses was constrained by his vow to Jethro. Unfortunately for Moses however, the die had been cast, and his grandson Jonathan was the fulfillment of the vow.

We know the relationship between the idolator Micah and Jonathan, Moses’ grandson. But could there have been a direct connection between Moses and Micah?

There is a fascinating Midrash: When the enslaved Israelites did not fulfill the quota of making bricks, the Egyptians immured the Hebrew babies in place of the missing bricks. When Moses complained to Hashem, He answered by saying that the Egyptians were merely ridding the nation of thorns (of future sinners). Moses tested God’s word by removing one baby out of the wall. That child grew up to be the idolater Micah who turned Moses’ grandson towards idolatry. 

Fred Ehrman  is an investment adviser in New York. He has held leadership positions in various Jewish organizations, and is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily-page study of the Talmud.

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