One Person Can Change the History of the Entire World
Thoughts on Parashat Shemot
The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.” (Exodus 4:19)
Such good news is conveyed by God to Moses in this week’s Torah portion. Of course this is not the beginning of this story, so let’s remind ourselves what happened earlier. Moses was forced to flee from Egypt to Midian after he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew man. He made this decision when he found out, as he was trying to break up two other fighting men – this time two Hebrews – that the news about his deed had spread out and that the Pharaoh wanted to catch him and kill him. In the land of Midian Moses stops by a well, where he defends the seven daughters of priest Jethro from the local shepherds. Moses waters their sheep and then he goes back to their father’s house with them. He decides to stay there, and Jethro gives him one of his daughters, Zipporah, as his wife. Soon she gives birth to his first son, Gershom.
Then God reveals Himself to Moses in a burning bush, where He entrusts him with the mission of freeing the people of Israel from the Land of Egypt; God describes the plan of his mission to Moses, He explains what the division of responsibilities between him and his brother Aaron should be etc. Moses says goodbye to his father-in-law, he takes his wife and sons and he sets out on a journey back to Egypt.
Everything seems to be headed in the right direction. The only problem is that as Moses sets out on his journey back to Egypt, God suddenly decides to kill him:
At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. (Exodus 4:24)
What is this all about? Doesn’t this seem absurd? God appoints him as a prophet and savior of Israel, and soon after that He decides to kill him? The traditional Rabbinic reply to this question states as follows: Yes, since Moses committed a sin – he neglected the duty to circumcise his son. This is also suggested quite clearly by the next two verses of the Torah:
So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (Exodus 4:25-26)
Of course, the Rabbis asked which one of Moses’ sons was this story referring to. Rashi suggests that it was not his firstborn, Gershom, but rather his second son, Eliezer, who was born right before the journey. In addition, our commentator provides an explanation for the behavior of Moses, who, besides the fact that he had to take care of practical, journey-related matters, was also weighing it up rationally: If I circumcise my son now and we embark on our journey to Egypt, his life will be endangered for three days. And, since we will be traveling, the danger will be even greater.
However, let us focus on something else: Let’s ask ourselves what would have happened if Zipporah had not circumcised their son. Would God have killed Moses? Considering how often He acted ruthlessly towards the Israelites (and not only them), one can assume that in all likelihood that’s exactly what would have happened. And what would have happened later? It’s hard to tell; perhaps the history of the entire world would have followed a different path. Possibly the Israelites would have stayed in Egypt forever, or someone else would have led them out of there. Fortunately, Moses’ wife took matters in her own hands and she rectified her husband’s mistake. Just like Joseph and Esther, Zipporah is one of those Biblical characters whose actions determined whether the entire Jewish nation would survive or not, and thus determined the fate of the entire world as well. Therefore, our Biblical history is yet another story emphasizing the importance of human vigilance and responsibility. Generally speaking, the higher our social status is, the greater responsibility we face. Therefore, let us always try to live and act in such a way so as to never give irresponsible people a chance to determine our fate.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka