Yitro: Degrees of Separation

February 8, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Posted in Yitro | 1 Comment

The children of Israel and fellow-travelers escape from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and set off across the Sinai peninsula, following God’s guiding pillar of cloud and fire.  Meanwhile, Yitro gets the news about the miracles that freed the Israelites, and intercepts them just before they arrive at Mount Sinai.  This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, begins:

Yitro, priest of Midyan, father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses, and for his people, Israel—that God had brought Israel out from Egypt.  So Yitro, father-in-law of Moses, took Tzipporah, wife of Moses, after her divorce, and her two sons, of whom one was named Gershom …  and one was named Eliezer … (Exodus/Shemot 18:1-4)

shillucheyha = her shilluchim

shilluchim = divorce; rejection; sending back a wife to her father’s house (from the root verb shallach = send)

There are two steps to divorce in the Torah:  the husband gives his wife a sefer keritut (literally a “document of cutting off”), and he sends her back to her father’s house.  Theoretically, a man might  return his wife to her father’s house temporarily, without actually divorcing her.  Many commentators, even today, claim that Moses sent Tzipporah back merely for her own safety while he was doing dangerous work for God in Egypt, and he always intended to return and reclaim her.

But if this is so, then why did Moses bring his wife and sons along on the journey to Egypt, only to send them back before they reached their destination? Also, if this is so, why didn’t the Torah employ one of the more common forms of the verb “to send”, instead of using the word shilluchim, a rare form of the root word that elsewhere in the Torah is only used to indicate a divorce?

On the grounds of both logic and grammar, I have to agree with modern commentators Athalia Brenner and Pamela Tamarkin Reis that somewhere on the road to Egypt, after the evening when Tzipporah saved Moses’ life (by performing a circumcision, smearing the blood on Moses, and calling him her “bridegroom of blood”), Moses decided to divorce his wife.  Something about that dramatic ritual must have pushed him over the edge.

The Torah does not say whether he also handed Tzipporah a document of cutting off, so we do not know whether Moses completed the divorce.  (I wonder, though if Tzipporah took care of that part symbolically through her own  act of cutting-off.  The text in Exodus chapter 4 does not say whether she circumcised Moses or one of their sons.)

Despite these indications of divorce, Yitro still calls his daughter Tzipporah the wife of Moses.

And he said to Moses:  I myself, your father-in-law Yitro, am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons with her.  And Moses went out to invite his father-in-law, and he bowed down to him, and he kissed him, and they inquired about one another’s welfare, and they came into the tent.  (Exodus 18:6-7)

Yitro travels into the wilderness to see Moses again, and to confirm that his god performs miracles.  I suspect he brings along Tzipporah and the boys in the hope that Moses will take them back.  Yitro is called “father-in-law of Moses” 13 times in this chapter of Torah, and he does seem to appreciate his family connection with the new leader of the Israelites.  No doubt he would like his daughter reinstated as Moses’ wife, and his grandsons acknowledged as Moses’ heirs.

Even if Tzipporah is a gerushah (divorced woman)she is free to remarry, and if she has not married someone else in the meantime, she can even remarry her original husband.  If Moses will take her.

Moses seems delighted to see  Yitro again.  He bows to his father-in-law, kisses him, exchanges greetings, and welcomes him into his tent.  The Torah says nothing about his reaction to seeing the wife and sons he sent away.  As far as we can tell, he completely ignores them.

The Torah gives us no reason to think Moses and Tzipporah ever become reconciled.  The only time the Torah mentions any wife of Moses  again is in Numbers/Bamidbar 12:1, which says Moses had married a Cushite woman, but does not give her name.

When Yitro leaves the camp, he apparently returns to his own land alone.

Moses sent off his father-in-law, and he went to his own land.  (Exodus 18:27)

The Torah does not say what happens to Tzipporah and the boys.  I imagine they stay with the Israelites, but Moses does not share a tent with his wife.  Shortly after this, Moses’ tent is named the Tent of Meeting (with God), and only Moses and his apprentice Joshua sleep there.

After Moses separates from Tzipporah on the road to Egypt, we never see him interacting with a wife or child again.  If he is married to anyone, he is married to God.  If he has any children, they are the thousands of children of Israel, by birth or adoption, that he has become responsible for.

It sounds exalted, like being the father of your country.  Yet I feel sorry for Moses.  His whole life is consumed by his service as an intermediary between God and the people.  He may have loving relationships with his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, but he misses out on the long companionship of marriage partners.

And my heart bleeds for Tzipporah.  Being a woman, she cannot decide her own fate.  Her father gives her to Moses in the first place.  When God chooses Moses as a prophet, Tzipporah rises to the challenge of her new circumstances, and even saves her husband’s life—only to be sent back, renounced, perhaps divorced.  In her society, without an adult son to take her in, she has no choice but to return to her father’s house and live under his authority again.  And then Yitro takes her back to Moses and dumps her in the Israelite camp, among strangers.  Her heroic act in the bridegroom of blood scene is ignored, forgotten.  She might as well be excess baggage.

The name Tzipporah means “bird”, but she is never allowed to fly.  She is a caged bird, carried from one owner to another.  Yet she has hidden depths, and is capable of great deeds.

We still have a long way to go before everyone in this world, including women, can escape their cages and fly.  We have a long way to go before everyone is free both to succeed in their work, and to have the intimate relationships that bring another kind of meaning to life.  In the meantime, may we have compassion for all caged birds— and for all great leaders.


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  1. […] Moses has a long conversation with God at the burning bush, then asks his father-in-law for permission to go back to Egypt to see how his relatives are doing there. Yitro wisely tells him to “go in peace”.3 Moses takes his wife and children, then sends them back to Yitro before he reaches Egypt. (See my post Yitro: Degrees of Separation.) […]

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