The story of Moshe as the leader of the Exodus almost never occurred. Towards the end of the sixth aliyah in parshas Shemot, there is an enigmatic occurrence (4:24-26). That event almost ends Moshe’s involvement in the Exodus and engenders multiple questions.
En route to Egypt, Moshe, accompanied by his wife and two sons—one recently born—stops at an inn. We are told that soon after his arrival “Hashem (yud, kay, vav, kay) encountered him and sought to kill him (וַיְהִ֥י בַדֶּ֖רֶךְ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֣הוּ ה’ וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ הֲמִיתֽוֹ).” Rashi explains that an angel—or possibly two angels—sought to kill Moshe, owing to Moshe having delayed the circumcision of his newborn son. Rashi further explains that the angel(s) took the form of the snake that first swallowed Moshe from his head to his thighs, and then from his feet the point of the circumcision.
Thereupon, Zippora circumcises their newborn son and Moshe’s life is spared. After performing the brit milah, she makes two cryptic statements. Zippora takes the foreskin she removed and touches it to his feet declaring: “For a bridegroom of blood are you to me (כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי).” The Torah then tells us that the angel released Moshe, whereupon Zippora makes an almost identical declaration stating: “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision (חֲתַ֥ן דָּמִ֖ים לַמּוּלֹֽת).”
Why would a delay in performing a circumcision—even if the righteous such as Moshe are held to a higher standard—warrant the death penalty? Why does an angel appear in the form of the snake, and what are we to make of Zippora’s arcane declarations? Moreover, if Hashem was seeking to kill Moshe, why was this manifest via the attribute of mercy (yud, kay, vav, kay) and not the attribute of justice (Elohim)?
Moshe was being dispatched to inform the Bnei Yisrael that Hashem had remembered the covenant made with Avraham, and that the time of redemption had arrived. Circumcision—the brit milah—is a sign of the covenant Hashem made with Avraham. Moreover, both Avraham and Yitzchak were careful with regard to whom their children would marry. So, imagine if Moshe would have arrived in Egypt declaring to be the divinely designated deliverer, but had arrived with a Midianite bride and an uncircumcised son. Would Hashem send one who failed to perform brit milah? Had Zippora truly adopted the religion of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? Such questions would have caused the Bnei Yisrael to doubt Moshe’s veracity and undermine what little faith they had in Hashem. The attribute of mercy (yud, kay, vav, kay) could not allow such a thing to transpire and Hashem, therefore, sent an angel to prevent it. This angel appeared in the form of the snake, because the snake was the first creature to spread falsehoods and sow doubt concerning Hashem. Had Moses arrived in Egypt with an uncircumcised child, Moshe would have unintentionally done the same.
In circumcising her son—on the spur of the moment with only a sharp stone (4:25)—Zippora demonstrated her devotion to the covenant. If any person—even Moshe himself—had any doubt of her devotion to Hashem, her actions put those doubts to rest. The blood of her son’s circumcision—that she herself performed under the most trying of circumstances—proved that her marriage to Moshe and her adoption of his religion was absolutely sincere. The phrase bridegroom of blood appears twice, as one is a declaration to Moshe of the veracity of her conversion, while the second similar declaration is made to the nation of Israel.
In Pirkei Avot (4:26), we are cautioned not to look at the vessel, but at its contents. In contemporary terms, we are warned not to judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, most people fail to do this, but—instead—judge according to appearance. Moshe needed to learn before leading the people, that in this world, appearance is almost as important as substance. Moshe, initially, did not comprehend this fact, as he was closer to perfection, closer to the ideal, closer to heaven than to earthly events (see the Sifri on Devarim 306:12, commenting that Moshe in Haazinu asks the heavens to listen, but the earth to hear; while Yeshayahu (1:2) does the reverse, because Moshe was closer to heaven than the earth).
Thus, in preventing Moshe from arriving in Egypt with an uncircumcised child, Hashem —both for Moshe and for Bnei Yisrael—was manifesting Himself through His merciful attribute. Indeed, Aaron will have Moshe return his family to Midyan, before they both enter Egypt to redeem Hashem’s people (see Rashi on parshas Yitro 18:2).
In our lives, we must also realize that appearance (theologically or philosophically known at times as “accident”) and substance (“essence”) are both important. For example, it is important to come to shul—but it is also important for us and our children to arrive in proper attire—to remind ourselves and others of the sanctity of davening and Shabbos.
William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelors of Arts in Religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a Board member and officer of several orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.