SHEMOS (Exodus, 1:1-6:1) — “Pain in the Ukraine”

Moses had a job to do.

G-d wanted him to return to Egypt and speak to the Pharaoh.  Moses was to demand the immediate release of the Israelite slaves.  No time could be wasted.

Moses was in such a hurry to carry out G-d’s wishes, that he delayed his son’s Bris.  Rabbi Yose tells us in the Talmud (Nedarim 31b-32a) that Moses was faced with a dilemma.  He couldn’t circumcise the baby and immediately depart for Egypt; to do so would be dangerous.  It would take three days before the baby was ready to travel.  He couldn’t perform the Bris and wait three days for the wound to heal; G-d had told him to go to Egypt.  Therefore, he postponed the Bris.

Moses and his family arrived at an inn not far from Egypt.  Moses could have performed the Bris then and there.  But first, they checked in to the inn.  That decision was almost his last:

When he was on the way, at the inn, G-d encountered him and wanted to kill him.  So Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, “You are a husband of blood to me.”  So he loosened his hold on him; then she said, “A husband of blood because of circumcision.”  (Exodus, 4:24-26)

The Talmud explains that an angel had taken the form of a snake that almost swallowed Moses alive.  Because it swallowed him up to the circumcision site, his wife understood that this had to do with the Mitzvah of Bris.  The angel’s departure from Moses after the Bris confirmed to Zipporah that her husband’s near death was due to his delay of that Mitzvah.

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Several of the Commentaries question this passage in the Talmud.  While there are many Commandments in the Torah that carry the death penalty, (e.g., murder, adultery, idol worship) circumcision is not one of them.  Why was Moses almost killed for this “sin?”

Rabbi Boruch Dov Povarsky of the Ponevezh Yeshivah answers that the reason the angel almost killed Moses was not because of the delay itself.  Rather, Moses almost forfeited his earlier survival of the Egyptian murder of children.

The Egyptians were killing Israelite baby boys.  The reason G-d allowed Moses’ basket to float into the safety of his foster mother’s arms (see “A Helping Hand”) was so that Moses could lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.  Before the Hebrews could leave Egypt, they would have to eat the Passover Offering at the First Seder, the night before their departure.  Since a non-circumcised male may not partake of the Passover offering, Moses was, in effect, delaying the departure from Egypt. As a result of his getting in the way of the Exodus, Moses was defeating the entire purpose of his survival!  He was supposed to facilitate the Exodus; instead he was delaying it!  Therefore, the angel felt that Moses no longer deserved to live.

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Rabbi Zalman Sortozkin gave a different answer.

G-d could simply have answered Moses’ dilemma by saying, “Don’t worry about the relative dangers of travel. Just do the Bris!”

Instead, G-d sent the angel to threaten Moses’ life.  This event would provide Moses with credibility later when he would tell the Israelites to circumcise themselves before eating the Passover offering.  He could tell them that just as his son’s Bris had saved him from certain death, it would also save them from the Angel of Death who was killing the Egyptian Firstborn.

He could warn them that they dare not remain uncircumcised; it was just too dangerous.  They would also not have to worry about the dangers of traveling after the Bris.  G-d had showed him that there was more danger in leaving Egypt without a Bris than with a not-yet-healed one.

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Our People have endured many trials and tribulations throughout the millennia.  The forces of Esau constantly try to stifle the spiritual growth of Jacob.  But Jacob’s children will not let that happen.

I was speaking this week with someone who is active in religious outreach to Jews in the former Soviet Union.  I heard a story that left me speechless.

The Soviets tried to silence Torah life and were quite successful.  But, with G-d’s help, our People have endured.  We have continued to fight against the forces of assimilation.

A Mohel went to the Ukraine to usher Jewish men into the Covenant of Abraham.  As a fifteen-year-old Yeshiva student lay on the table, the Mohel read his medical chart.  The boy, as it turned out, was allergic to the anesthesia that the Mohel had brought from the U.S.

Unlike a newborn whose nerve endings are not well-developed, an “older” person MUST have anesthesia for his circumcision.  The Bris would have to be delayed.  On his next trip to the Ukraine, he would be sure to bring a different type of anesthesia.

No, insisted the boy.  He wanted to have his Bris!  He would not get off the table.  He was adamant.  He was already fifteen years late; he would wait no longer!

Several of his friends stood at various points along the table.  Some held down his arms while others held his legs.  No, he declared.  This would not do.  No one was to hold him down!  This was his Mitzvah, and he was prepared to accept whatever came his way.

The Mohel set out to do his holy work.  There was skin tissue to cut, and wounds to suture and cauterize.  The young man just lay there and endured it all.

He tried to be stoic and motionless.  Throughout the excruciating pain, he remained silent.  But finally, he could be silent no more. It was just too painful.  He let out a blood-curdling scream:

OY!” he yelled.  “OY! IZ GUT TZU ZEIN A YID!”  (It’s good to be a Jew!)

Yes, my dear Ukrainian brother.  It certainly is.  And it is the special people like you who remind the rest of us.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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 From the Archives 

“My Grandson’s Bris – 2” (2010) 

Read More.

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“My Grandson the Priest” (2009) 

… Jethro recognized that Moses was an Israelite; he proposed a match with one of his daughters.

But there was a catch…Jethro would only agree to allow Moses to marry his daughter on the condition that the oldest son would be raised to be a priest of idol worship.

Pretty amazing, no?  Want to hear something even more amazing?  Moses agreed!! …

Read More.

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“Mrs. Moses: Certified Mohelet??!” (2008) 

Several years ago I was driving in the car listening to a discussion on the radio about circumcision.  Being a Mohel myself, I was, of course, very interested in the conversation.  I listened with curiosity and apprehension.

I get very uncomfortable when religious Jews call radio shows.  It is very difficult to explain a profound religious concept in a cogent and articulate manner when the host has his own ideas and can cut you off in mid-sentence.  Yet, the calls were coming in, and the host maintained that circumcision is done for health reasons.

Then an Italian lady called and said that she had her boys circumcised for health reasons, and was glad she did.  He said, “Thank you, dear,” and hung up.  Then he asked, “Hey, I wonder if a lady is allowed to be a Mohel.”

I braced myself for the responses.  A short time later, the host said, “Our next caller, from RocklandCounty, is Moysheh.  Hello, Moysheh.”

“Hello, Mr. Grant.  This is Moishe-the-Moyel from Monsey!”…

Read More.

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“Mrs. Moses Goes Home to Father” (2007)

… Moses was about to get a promotion.  He was about to become the Shepherd of Israel.   G-d assigned Moses the crucial task of leading his People out of Egypt.  There was, however, a problem.  There was the matter of his pre-nuptial agreement…

At one point, Zipporah decided to pack up the boys and go home.  There are various reasons given by the Commentaries.  The Chasam Sofer suggests that all was not well in the ben-Amram family…

Moses’ wife …went home.  … She would not accompany him to Egypt…

So what changed her mind? …

Read More.

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“The Secret Password” (2006)

What are the credentials of a savior of Israel? Imagine the scene:

The Sages of Israel have been summoned to a meeting. They have been enduring unspeakable horrors due to the agonizing slavery that his been placed upon them by their Egyptian taskmasters.  The meeting has been called by a fugitive, a wanted man.  Moses, the twelve-year-old son of Amram the Levite had absconded from Egypt to escape a murder conviction.  Now, as an eighty year-old man, he has returned to Egypt with an announcement…

Do we listen to Moses? Is he for real?  Is he on the level?  We haven’t seen this fellow in sixty-eight years! Suddenly he shows up with a Messianic proclamation, and he expects us to risk our skins by going to the Pharaoh with such an outrageous request!?

They bought it…

Read More.

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 “Pain in the Ukraine” (2004)

… A Mohel went to the Ukraine to usher Jewish men into the Covenant of Abraham.  As a fifteen-year-old Yeshiva student lay on the table, the Mohel read his medical chart.  The boy, as it turned out, was allergic to the anesthesia that the Mohel had brought from the U.S…  The Bris would have to be delayed… No, insisted the boy.  He wanted to have his Bris!  He would not get off the table.  He was adamant.  He was already fifteen years late; he would wait no longer!…The Mohel set out to do his holy work.  There was skin tissue to cut, and wounds to suture and cauterize.  The young man just lay there and endured it all.

He tried to be stoic and motionless.  Throughout the excruciating pain, he was silent.  But finally, he could be silent no more. It was just too painful.  He let out a blood-curdling scream…

Read More.

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“Watch Your Step!” (2004)

… I walked into my Bible class at one of the facilities where I am a chaplain, and presented them with a provocative question.  “How do we know,” I asked, “that G-d gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai?”

I wasn’t quite prepared for the response.  A little lady with a kerchief on her head — I’ll call her “Mrs. Cohen” — who almost always sat quietly through my various classes, called out, in a very German accent, “Because it says so in the Tow-raw!” (For those unfamiliar with the German pronunciation: Tow-raw — “Tow,” rhyming with “now”, and “raw,” rhyming with “saw.”)

I was frustrated.  She broke my momentum.  Sure, I thought, SHE believes that, but what about every one else?

“Yes, of course,” I continued, “it says so in the Torah.  But how do we know that the Torah’s description is actually what happened?”

“Because it says so in the Tow-raw!”

I gave up…

Read More.

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“A Tale of Two Kings” (2002) 

[TORAH TALK IN THE JEWISH PRESS:  This message from 2002, updated for the 2007 political season, appeared as an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press.]

…The Egyptians were concerned about the growth of the Jewish population. The Israelites were increasing by leaps and bounds. … The Egyptian people demanded that their king address their “Jewish Problem.”

The king, who at first had demonstrated a bit of integrity, refused. He couldn’t bring himself to take action against Joseph’s people. Joseph had been so good to Egypt. The masses wouldn’t take no for an answer. They ousted the king.

Spending three months as an ex-king was more than he could bear. Thus, “a new king arose over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph.” The “new” king with a new attitude conveniently “didn’t know,” or, at least ACTED as if he didn’t know Joseph. The persecution began…

Read More.

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“Mother Goose Lied to Us!” (2002)

Moses was pained over the status of his nation.  They were persecuted and afflicted.  The Israelites weren’t just slaves who were forced to work; they were treated like animals.  Moses couldn’t understand why the Children of Israel were suffering so greatly.  He couldn’t understand why G-d had not yet taken His People out of Egypt.  Was He angry with them?…

 Read More.

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“A Helping Hand” (2001)

…Bisya adopted the child and raised him in the palace.  She named him Moshe, “because I drew him (“MISHISIYHU” in Hebrew) from the water.”  (Exodus, 2:10) … the name “Moshe” seems to be grammatically incorrect.    A more accurate name would be “Mashui,” which would mean “one who is drawn.” …

Read More.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on December 30, 2004 at 11:58 am  Leave a Comment  

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