It happened along the way to the Inn (malon) that God met him [Moshe] and wanted to kill him. Tzipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the orlah of her son, and threw it at his feet, and said, “Your a bridegroom of blood to me!” She loosened her hold of him and said, “Your are a bridegroom of blood, because of circumcisions.” (Shemos 4:24)It is amazing how close the Jewish people came to losing their redeemer from Egyptian slavery, and all because Moshe had delayed the planned bris of his son by what would have amounted to minutes! For putting off milah for the malon, Moshe incurred the death penalty on the way to Mitzrayim.The angel became a serpent and swallowed him from his head to his thigh, and then spit him out again, and then swallowed him from his legs to the place [of Bris Milah]. Tzipporah thereby understood that it had happened on account of the delay in performing Bris Milah to her son. (Rashi)
First of all, though it is a positive mitzvah to perform Bris Milah on one’s son, the penalty for not doing so is not death, or even kares (being cut off from the Jewish people). A father who does not circumcize his son has lost out on a positive mitzvah, and even a child only incurs kares if he dies not having seen to his own circumcision. If so, what was Moshe’s crime that he warranted death?
And why the snake? Why did God choose to come after Moshe by sending an angel who took the form of a snake?
We learned about the symbolism of a snake from an earlier episode that also involved Moshe and a serpent. However, at that time, it had been a response to something Moshe had said, not a responsibility he had yet to fulfill:Moshe answered and said, “They will not believe me, nor listen to my voice; they will say that God has not appeared to me.”Ever since the First Snake (back in Gan Aiden) spoke loshon hara about God to induce Chava to eat from the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Rah, loshon hara has been identified as the “trade” of the snake. For, just as a snake bites and inflicts a serious wound yet derives no pleasure from doing so, so too does loshon hara “bite” the subject of the loshon hara, though it provides little fulfillment for the speaker. (Arachin 15b.)
God said to him, “What is in your hand?”
He said, “A staff.”
He told him, “Throw it to the ground.”
He threw it to the ground and it became a serpent, and Moshe ran away from it ... (Shemos 4:1)And it became a serpent ... This indicated to him that he had spoken loshon hara about the Jewish people, and that he had imitated the trade of the serpent. (Rashi)
From the Talmud, we learn how serious a transgression loshon hara actually is:Anyone who speaks loshon hara is like one who has denied all of Torah ... increases his transgressions until Heaven ... deserves to be stoned ... God says He can’t live with him ... increases his transgressions until they correspond to the three transgressions: idol worship, illicit relations, and murder (These are the three cardinal transgressions for which one is supposed to give up his life for rather than commit.) ... (Arachin 15b)What is so bad about loshon hara?There is no question that it is not a good trait to speak derogatorily about another person, but is it worse than worshipping idols, being involved in an illicit relationship, or committing murder?
The answer, according to the Talmud, is yes. The question is, why?
Consider the intent of loshon hara. If the point of revealing a less-than-positive trait or action of somebody is to save another person from becoming entering into a potentially destructive relationship with them, then it is not necessarily called loshon hara. This we learn from elsewhere in the Talmud:“... And the pit into which Yishmael ben Korach threw all the bodies that were killed by Gedalia ... “ (Yirmiyahu 41:9) Gedalia killed them?! Yishmael killed them! Rather, since he didn’t pay attention to the advice he received from Yochanan ben Korach, the possuk makes it as if he killed them. Rava said: But it was loshon hara! Even though he should not have accepted it [as being true], he should have at least still been cautious! (Niddah 61a)The difference is subtle but crucial. Speaking badly about someone as if he is responsible for the way he acts is passing judgment on that person. Now, judgment of people is not beyond the realm of human responsibility, since we see that the Torah has commanded us to set up courts and exercise justice, even carrying out capital punishment when necessary.
However, that judgment is with respect to action, not essence. We can note an action, warn against it, witness it, and judge it according to the standards of Torah, and then execute judgment as the Torah prescribes for such an infringement. What we can’t do though is know everything about the person’s life that went into making them the kind of person that can respond that way to reality. Only God can do that.
For, to fully know everything about a person’s essence is to know all the factors of his life: his family history, his birth, his situation, what happened to him as a child, as an adolescent, as an adult, etc. In short, to size up the spiritual responsibility of a person is to know every nook and cranny of that person’s life, that which is revealed and that which is hidden.
Now, who can know that other than God Himself?
Hence, when a person speaks loshon hara, he is being far more that presumptuous; he is acting in the place of God! And isn’t that precisely what the serpent did, and Amalek does?
Amalek = el acher (other god)
(That is, the numerical value of each word is 240.)
And, the essence of what went wrong in Shechem, the place fitting for punishment, where the Malchus Bais Dovid divided into two kingdoms:Had Dovid not accepted loshon hara, the Malchus Bais Dovid would not have been divided; the Jewish people would not have worshipped idols, and we would not have been exiled from our Land! (Shabbos 56b)That is an incredible consequence for having accepted loshon hara! On the other hand, it does make it easier to understand the essence of Bris Milah, which means the covenant of the word, and why delaying the bris of his son almost cost Moshe his life.
The essence of man’s creative power lies in his ability to intellectually process Da’as Elokim and form it into words that best give expression to that da’as. It is to remove all intellectual and spiritual barriers (orlos) that interfere with the ability to receive that da’as, and then properly relate it within the physical world, thereby elevating that world to a higher spiritual plain.
This had been the essence of Moshe’s mission, and his whole reason for existence. The Talmud makes it clear that Moshe’s greatness was for the sake of the Jewish people, to act as a conduit for the Da’as Elokim that was to make its way down to them:God said to Moshe, “Go down, because the people you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves.” (Shemos 32:7)Thus, though for any other father who might delay the bris of his son it is only a violation of a positive mitzvah, for Moshe, the delay of the milah for the sake of the malon (interestingly enough, the word itself shares the same root word: mem, lamed) was in violation of his entire nature and mission. For, it was the mission of Moshe to execute the bris in the most supreme way—by freeing the “mouths” and “tongues” of the Jewish people so that they too could be able to receive and speak the word of God for themselves.Go down ... From your high position, for, I have given you distinction only for their sake! (Brochos 32a)
Therefore, delaying the milah of his son suggested a lacking in Moshe’s ability to carry out that mission. However, that too was rectified by his wife, who performed the necessary milah, and not only saved her husband’s life, but the whole mission to Egypt! Curiously, her name also alludes to her mission:
Tzipporah = tzor peh
(tzaddik, peh, raish, heh = tzaddik, raish peh, heh)
The first two letters (tzaddik, raish) spell the word tzor (sharp stone), which is what Tzipporah used to perform the milah on her son. The second word is peh, or mouth. Hence, within the name Tzipporah itself is an allusion to what she did and why she did it! In other words, is it any wonder that Tzipporah had the merit to use the sharp rock to remove the orlah, the symbol of that which inhibits the mouth, and to perform the “Covenant of the Word” on her son, while as the same time saving her husband, whose “power was in his mouth” to bring down the Torah from Heaven?
The Torah itself alludes to the intricate connection between milah and Moshe’s mission:Torah is not in Heaven, so that you could ask, “Who will ascend for us to Heaven and get it for us ...” (Devarim 30:12)And that mission didn’t just include the freeing of their spiritual mouths, but it also included a complete spiritual resuscitation, for, by the time Moshe returned to Egypt, he found a people that was kotzer ruach—short-winded and unable to speak altogether! (Shemos 6:9: When Moshe came to the Jewish people the second time to inform them of the upcoming redemption, the possuk says they could not respond because they were kotzer ruach, which means “short of breath.”)
The first letters [of the Hebrew words “Who will ascend for us to Heaven”] spell the word milah; the last letters [of these words] spell Hashem (the Tetragrammaton Name), to teach that it is impossible to ascend toward God uncircumcized, as the possuk, which refers to milah, says, “Walk before Me and be pure ...” (Bereishis 17:1). (Ba’al HaTurim)
The concept of kotzer ruach alludes to another aspect of the sod embodied in the mitzvah of Bris Milah. There is no question that the “short-windedness” of the Jewish people was the result of the intensified physical labor imposed upon them by Paroah after Moshe’s first request for freedom. However, the essence of the kotzer ruach was not physical, but spiritual, and like Amalek after him, Paroah knew this. This is why:The Egyptians made the B’nei Yisroel serve with rigor (b’pharech) ... (Shemos 1:13)Elsewhere, the midrash says that they made the Jews build upon soft ground, so that what they built today fell down tomorrow, and had to be rebuilt again. Nothing is more demoralizing than meaningless suffering; nothing is more suggestive of a lack of Divine Providence than suffering without meaning.Rebi Elazar said: Bepharech means with a soft mouth ... Rebi Shmuel bar Nachmani said: This means they changed the work of men for women and the work of women for men. (Sota 11b)
Nothing “softens” the mouth of the Jew, so that it speaks only of non-Torah matters, and takes away the spirit of the Jew, so that it comes to despise the ways of our Fathers, than the belief that God isn’t “there” anymore, and that even if He is, He doesn’t care about us anymore! This is why the prophet had to reassure those who went into the Babylonian exile not to despair, and to go about their normal Torah-life patterns. Exile, the prophet alluded, does not mean complete abandonment:So said God, “Where is your mother’s bill of divorce that I sent her away? Or, who is it of My creditors to whom I sold you?” (Yishaya 50:1)It was Paroah’s goal, and later Amalek’s, to deny the Jew the simcha of serving God. For it is joy that fuels inspiration, and it is inspiration that prevents a mitzvah from sinking to the level of ritual. And it is ritualistic service of God that drives a psychological wedge between the Jew and Torah:... Because you didn’t serve God, your God, with joy and gladness of heart, for all the things [He gave to you]. Therefore, you will serve your enemies, whom God has sent against you, in famine ... and in want of all things; he will put an iron yoke around your neck until he has exterminated you. (Devarim 28:47)The above quote is from Parashas Ki Savo, which lists the multitude of curses that the Jewish people were destined to suffer for straying from Torah. Historically, they have all been fulfilled over the ages. Yet, what is most baffling is that, the myriad of troubles we have suffered have had more to do with our attitude toward the mitzvos, rather than our failure to comply with the Torah itself! This was confirmed earlier, in another parsha, the other one that deals with the curses for disobedience:If you walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments ... (VaYikrah 25:3)In other words, the Torah is warning, the breakdown in mitzvah fulfillment is not simply a matter of disobedience, as the Talmud makes perfectly clear:If you walk in My statutes ... One might think that this denotes the fulfillment of the mitzvos; however, when the Torah states, “and keep My commandments,” it is clear that this refers to the fulfillment of the mitzvos. How do we then explain “If you walk in My statutues”? It is an admonition to study the Torah laboriously. (Rashi)A person does not transgress unless a spirit of insanity enters him. (Sota 3a)After all, who in their right mind would rebel against God? Who would really want to abandon eternal fulfillment for the temporal consummation of This World? The answer is: no person in their right mind—not a bar da’as, not someone who is connected up to Da’as Elokim; not someone who is receiving light from the Fifty Gates of Understanding.If you want it as you do silver, and search after it like buried treasures, then you will understand fear of God—Da’as Elokim you will find. (Mishlei 2:4)In other words, if you seek it out earnestly, you will achieve true da’as, and it will prevent you from doing the wrong thing.
However—and this is really the crux of the matter—though it is true, that one who strives for Torah will achieve it, (Megillah 6b; The Talmud says that one who says that he tried to learn but didn’t succeed, or that he didn’t try to learn and did succeed, should not be believed. However, one who tried to learn and succeeded should be believed.) the real question is, how? How do you inspire yourself to want it—always? How does one constantly fulfill the words of:Torah should not leave your mouth, and you must learn it day and night ... (Yehoshua 1:8)without becoming uninspired, without fealing like a slave to Torah, so that doing mitzvos doesn’t become ritualistic? How does one fulfill the following:[My commandments which I] command you this day ... This tells you that they should be new to you as though you had heard them for the first time on that day. (Sifri, Devarim 11:32)After all, is this not synonomous with overcoming Amalek? Does Amalek not come to depress the Jewish spirit, to make us kotzer ruach so that we lose our patience for mitzvos, so that we will then look for excuses to avoid them while pursuing a more temporal, physical existence?
How does one overcome all of that?
The answer is not a simple one. Indeed, it is at the very root of what it means to descend from Avraham Avinu, our Forefather, the one with whom the covenant of milah was first made, as well as the bris k’erusa l’sfasayim (literally, covenant cut for the lips); the one of whom it is written:And God said, “Let there be Light!” And there was Avraham! (Bereishis Rabbah 2:3)