Zipporah is My Hero

Image: A flint knife from Egypt, c.1000 BCE. This historical image held by Wellcome Images is available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.

Parashat Shemot has a curious little story in it, one of the most mysterious passages in the Torah.

Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Yitro, the priest of Midian. There is no mention of any conversion to Judaism. This gives us two alternatives:

  1. It wasn’t mentioned because she never converted.
  2. It wasn’t mentioned because of course she converted.

Traditional interpretations tend to go with #2. However, I am not so sure. Was the marriage of Moses and Zipporah an intermarriage? We have stories in midrash about how Yitro eventually converted to the religion of the Hebrews, but I am not aware of any such midrashim concerning Zipporah.

The story in Exodus 4:24-26:

So it happened on the way, at the lodging-place, that God met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.’ So he let him alone. Then she said: ‘A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.’

It looks like a fragment of a story, sandwiched in between God’s instructions to Moses and the little family’s arrival in Egypt. The pronouns make it particularly confusing, and I left them as written, because I thought you might enjoy puzzling over them.

To my eyes, it looks like Moses neglected to give Gershom a bris [ritual circumcision.] God was unhappy about this, so unhappy that He suddenly announced he was going to kill Moses. Zipporah stepped in and performed the bris, throwing the foreskin at Moses’ (?) feet. Then she said something very weird, and God left them alone. Zipporah, realizing that she’d said something weird, tried to clarify it.

All that’s really clear here is that Zipporah is the heroine of the tale, and Gershom was finally circumcised.

When I attend a bris for a family in which the mother is not Jewish, or the mother is a convert to Judaism, I like to tell her about Zipporah. We would not have made it out of Egypt had she not seized that piece of flint! And whether she was a convert to Judaism or not, she saved the whole nation of Israel.

Rabbi David Kasher has a fascinating take on this story, and did a better job of searching the midrashim. You can read his article on Parsha Nut.

Parashat Shemot: Names & Deeds

Julie Arnold, Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

Sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not a single woman’s name in the list that opens Parashat Shemot. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women. But that’s too shallow a reading: after the list of men’s names, the portion is filled with the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism today.

In Chapter 1, we learn the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: Hebrew children survived because two women looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we learn the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! When she could hide him no longer, she put the infant in a basket and set it afloat in the Nile, a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was notorious for its ravenous crocodiles.

Miriam followed along on the bank watching over the baby boy. Midrash tells us that Moses’ sister had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. Nevertheless, imagine the nerve it took to follow along in the reeds, watching over that basket! There were dangers on the bank, too: crocodiles, snakes, and Pharaoh’s soldiers, yet young Miriam never abandoned her brother.

In Chapter 4, the young wife of Moses, Zipporah, watched her husband have a near-fatal encounter with God. She deduced that it had something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she took a knife and performed the circumcision herself. The story is very mysterious, but one thing is sure: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she herself was no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of men, but it is the deeds of women that set this great saga in motion.

Names and Deeds

Moses in the Bulrushes
Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of  men, but it is the deeds of  women that set this great saga in motion.