Shemot: Openings

April 11, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Posted in Shemot | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on December 21, 2010.)

And Moses said to God: Excuse me, my lord, I have not been a man of words, even yesterday, even the day before, even earlier when you spoke to your servant; for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:10)

kaveid (when used as an adjective for a body part) = heavy, dull, implacable, insensitive

On the way, at the lodging-place, God encountered him and sought to have him put to death.  And Tzipporah took a flint, and she cut the foreskin of her son, and she touched it to his legs, and she said: Because you are a bridegroom of bloodshed for me.  And it withdrew from him; then she said: A bridegroom of bloodshed for the circumcisions.  (Exodus/Shemot 4:24-26)

The book of Exodus opens with this week’s Torah portion.  (Both the book and the first portion are called Shemot—Names).  The Israelites are now slaves in Egypt, and the new Pharoah fears insurrection.  Moses is born and adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter.  As a young man, he murders an Egyptian overseer, flees to Midian, and marries the daughter of a Midianite priest.  At age 80, still vigorous, Moses encounters the burning bush, and God assigns him the job of returning to Egypt and demanding that the Pharaoh let the Israelite slaves go free to worship their god.  Moses tries to back away from this mission five times, and each time God counters his objection.  The fourth time, Moses pleads that he has never been a good speaker, saying “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (see my first translation above).

Does this mean that Moses believes he is not eloquent, that he has forgotten the Egyptian language, or that he has a speech impediment?  The commentary is divided.  A famous midrash describes Pharaoh testing three-year-old Moses by presenting him with a choice between a jewel (or in some versions, a lump of gold) and a burning coal, on the theory that if this adopted grandson is a threat, he will choose the jewel.  An angel in this story guides Moses’ hand so he picks up the coal, brings it to his mouth, and burns himself.  The resulting scar causes a speech impediment by making his mouth literally kaveid:  heavy, thick, insensitive.

On the other hand, in next week’s Torah portion, Moses describes himself twice as having “uncircumcised lips”.  Circumcision of the foreskin is both the removal of a covering, and an act of consecration to God.  Thus the phrase “uncircumcised lips” is a metaphor both for being habitually silent (close-mouthed), and also for being unworthy to speak.  I think when Moses describes his mouth and tongue as kaveid in this week’s portion, he is also using a metaphor.  This metaphor emphasizes his inability to speak effectively.

Why does Moses keep saying he cannot, dare not, or will not speak?  He may regret murdering the Egyptian overseer so much that he is still unwilling to take any significant action in the world.  Opening his mouth and telling the Pharaoh to release of a huge number of Hebrew slaves certainly counts as significant action.

For a prophet, power comes from speech.  Power is also indicated in the Torah by the symbol of a king’s staff or rod, and by other phallic euphemisms such as “thigh” or “legs”.  Circumcision, then, dedicates a male’s symbol of power to God.

The idea of circumcision appears in this week’s Torah portion as soon as Moses gives in to God’s demand and heads toward Egypt with his wife and their two sons.  In the famously mysterious “Bridegroom of Blood” episode (my second translation above), God seems to want Moses’ death, and Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, saves his life by circumcising one of her sons and touching the blood to someone’s “legs”.

The ambiguity of the pronouns in this passage has resulted in many different explanations of the details.  (For example, did Tzipporah touch the bloody foreskin to the “legs” of her son, or Moses, or an angel God sent to kill him?)   But traditional commentators agree on its main message: that Moses deserves death because he failed to circumcise one of his sons at the proper time, and this transgression made him unworthy of being God’s agent in Egypt.  Tzipporah saves her husband’s life by immediately circumcising the correct son and ritually connecting her act with Moses.

Modern alternative theories include Martin Buber’s comment that founders of religions normally experience a night when their newly-won certainty suddenly collapses, and they are assailed by demons of terror and doubt.  Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg considered the uncircumcised baby a stand-in for Moses with his uncircumcised lips.

I agree with both of them.  I think Moses’ encounter with death does express his terror of speaking for God and getting it all wrong.  The emergency circumcision ritual does enable him to commit himself to speaking for God, and sanctifies that commitment.

Moses’ wife is the one who changes his terror into commitment.  Whatever her beliefs about God, Tzipporah is a Midianite, not a Hebrew by birth.  She would know of Hebrew circumcision rites only by hearsay.  Yet she does exactly the right thing to rescue her husband from his disabling and deadly fear of speaking in the name of God.  Maybe her graphic reminder of circumcision, the primary sign of commitment to God, jolts Moses into his own commitment.  Or maybe it is her action that commits him, willy-nilly, and Moses can only accept it, knowing in his deepest heart that his wife is right.

Tzipporah only says two sentences in the Torah.  Her last word is “circumcisions” in the plural.  She has circumcised someone physically, and she has also circumcised Moses’ lips metaphorically, removing the weight of his determined silence, making his mouth sensitive for God’s use.

The commentary agrees that Moses could not have survived without the unusual actions of the women in his life: his mother Yocheved, who casts him into the Nile in a basket; Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds him and adopts him; and Moses’ sister Miriam, who arranges for their own mother to be his hired wet-nurse.  But the strangest rescue of all is when his wife Tzipporah sees him dying and saves him with blood, in a stroke of divine inspiration.

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