By Arthur Sandman, Executive Vice President, The Jewish Agency for Israel, International Development
The January cycle of Torah readings begins with the parasha of Shemot and ends with Yitro. And in these portions is the story of Moses’ marriage, from beginning to, I think, end. I’ve been thinking about marriage as portrayed in the Torah, in part because my son is engaged. Of course, any number of characters in the Torah are married, but there are only a few that receive any amount of attention: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, who was married to both Leah and Rachel, and finally Moses and Tzipporah. And in trying to think of divrei Torah for our various family occasions taking place I’m finding the view of marriage is at best realistic; certainly not inspiring for a new couple. Eve blames Adam for her sin. Sarah is rather rough on Abraham with regard to Hagar and Ishmael. Rebecca connives with her son Jacob to deceive Isaac. Leah suffers the denial of Jacob’s love, while Rachel and Jacob suffer through infertility and then death-in-childbirth.
But Moses and Tzipporah’s marriage is portrayed mostly obliquely, and most bleakly. Moses first meets Tzipporah at a well—just as we first encounter Rebecca and then Rachel at wells. Rebecca displayed her merit by watering the camels of Abraham’s servant (no small task). Jacob broke into tears on first seeing Rachel. In Moses case, upon fleeing to Midian, he rises to defend seven sisters who are being driven from the well by shepherds, but there is no mention of Tzipporah here. He is gallant, but hardly romantic. Rather, Jethro, her father, chooses Tzipporah for Moses seemingly at random, seemingly in fatherly appreciation. They have a son.
Our next glimpse of Tzipporah is on the way, with Moses, to confront Pharaoh. Moses has been told by God that he will ultimately threaten Pharaoh with the slaying of the first born, and the Torah tells us:
At an encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, staying, “ 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.”
Perplexing; that is the entirety of the account. The marriage and the night incident occur in parashat Shemot. Our next, and I think last, encounter with Tzipporah is in Yitro, at the end of January, when the Torah reports that Jethro joins Moses in the desert after the Exodus, bringing Tzipporah and Moses’ two sons (we only knew of one previously). “So Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent.” (Sent from/to where? No indication.) Jethro gives sage advice to Moses on the art of civil administration, and then he returns to Midian.
Much later, in the book of Bemidbar, we read that Moses’ siblings, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.
Here’s how I read Moses’ marriage based on these texts. Moses marries Tziporah—why not? They have a son. He then takes his young family on a business trip to Egypt. At this point, Tzipporah is pregnant again, and she either gives birth on the way or some time afterward. God comes to kill Moses, because Moses has not apprehended the seriousness of the circumstances; this is, in fact, no ordinary business trip. It is a dangerous business. Tzipporah intervenes to save Moses, but accuses him of being a bridegroom of blood—one who brings danger to the family. Apparently, she returns home to Midian at that point, reappearing when Jethro joins Moses in the desert. And we can assume that Tzipporah, who receives no attention from Moses in this encounter, again returns to Midian with her father, because we don’t hear any more of her or her sons. The wife of Aaron and Miriam’s complaint is Cushite, not Midianite—apparently a second wife. No family is referenced at the death of Moses.
Moses, then, provides us with our first known broken marriage. The other marriages portrayed in the Torah are difficult, but till death do they part. Moses and Tzipporah do not make it, and, it would seem, Moses’ preoccupation with his mission—his work—is an important piece of the equation. Moreso, if we explored Moses rather close relationship with Jethro, we would see it more as one of professional mentorship than a family affair.
We often look to Moses as the paradigm of a Jewish communal professional—adept, committed, tireless, fearless. But in relating to our family lives, in balancing work and home, Moses is not example, but admonition. Go home.