Parsha Halacha

Parshat Yitro

Gershom, Son of Moshe

What Happened to Moshe’s Firstborn?

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The Torah portion of Yitro begins with Yitro, Moshe Rabeinu’s father-in-law, coming to join the Jewish people in the desert and bringing with him Moshe’s wife and two children. The reason that Moshe’s wife and children had still been in Midian is that when Moshe brought them with him from Midian to Egypt before the Exodus, his brother Aharon convinced him to send them back because of the ongoing hardship that the Jewish people in Egypt were experiencing.[1]

Some say that Moshe’s family did not accompany him to Egypt and that he had planned for them to join him only after the Exodus took place.[2] When the verse (in the Torah portion of Shemot) says, “Moshe took his wife and sons, mounted them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt,” it means that Moshe took his wife and children who had until then accompanied him in his travels with his flocks back to Midian on a donkey while he went alone to Egypt. As such, the story of Tziporah circumcising her son took place in an inn on their way back to Midian rather than on the way to Egypt.[3]

After He Sent Her Away/After He Sent for Her

The Torah says that Yitro brought back Tziporah, the wife of Moshe, אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ which is usually translated as “after she was sent away” and is referring to the fact that Moshe had sent her home when he got to Egypt. According to the commentaries that Tziporah never went to Egypt, she was never sent away as it was Moshe who left Midian whileshe stayed. Those commentaries translate the words אַחַר שִׁלּוּחֶיהָ to mean “after he (Moshe) sent for her,” i.e., that Yitro brought Tziporah back after Moshe sent a message to her that she should join him. (Yitro was only able to bring her when Moshe sent for her as until that point the Jewish people were traveling frequently through the desert.) Some say[4] that it means that Yitro brought her to Moshe after providing her with a dowry (to encourage Moshe to take her back).

Was Tziporah Divorced?

Even according to the opinions that Moshe sent Tziporah home, some say[5] that he did not formally divorce her. This is why the Torah emphasizes that Tziporah was אֵשֶׁת מֹשֶׁה – “the wife of Moshe” i.e., she was still his wife. Although before the Torah was given when a couple separated and went to live in separate houses they were considered divorced, this case was different as Tziporah (and Moshe) never considered this separation anything more than a temporary situation.

Others say[6] that Moshe and Tziporah were formally divorced and that they never fully remarried which is why Miriam spoke out against Moshe in the Torah portion of Beha’alotecha. The reason that Moshe divorced Tziporah (according to this opinion) is that his assignment in Egypt was for undetermined period of time and he did not want her to be left waiting for him.[7]

Some[8] suggest a compromise between the two above-mentioned opinions and explain that, despite the fact that Tziporah was divorced, she was still considered Moshe’s wife since it is forbidden to marry the divorcee of a king.

Order of the Names

Moshe called his first son גַרְשֹם/Gershom, alluding to the fact that he was a foreigner in a strange land (גַרְ means “stranger” and שָם means “there”) while he called his second son אֱלִיעֶזֶר/Eliezer as an acknowledgment to G-d for saving him from the sword of Pharaoh (אֵלִי means “my G-d” while עֶזֶר means “help.”)

The commentaries question why Moshe didn’t call his first son אֱלִיעֶזֶר considering that his salvation from Pharoah’s sword took place before he became a stranger in a strange land (when he fled Egypt).[9]

Several answers are offered:

●      Thanks for the Present before the Past

Moshe chose to first thank G-d for assistance in his current situation as a refugee and only after that did he thank Him for His earlier assistance.[10]

●      He Was a Stranger in This World

When Moshe Rabeinu said that he was a stranger in a foreign land, he meant that he was a stranger in this physical world as all tzadikim feel that this world is not their true home. He had this perspective even before he was saved from Pharaoh’s sword.[11]

●      Not Safe from Pharaoh’s Sword, Even in Midian

Moshe did not feel safe from Pharaoh’s sword even when he was in Midian as Pharaoh had the wherewithal to send agents to foreign countries to kill him. It was only after Pharaoh died[12] which happened after his first son was born, that Moshe felt safe and could give his second son the name that recalled the miracle.[13]

Given to Idol Worship

The Mechilta[14] says that before Yitro agreed to give his daughter Tziporah to Moshe in marriage he made Moshe swear that he would dedicate his oldest son for idol worship. Moshe agreed, and for this reason Gershom remained uncircumcised until the angel threatened to kill Moshe. It was only when Tziporah circumcised him, finally reversing the arrangement that her father had made, that the angel let Moshe go.[15]

Some opinions hold[16] that this can explain why Moshe named his children in the order that he did (see above), for he did not give his first son a name until his brit milah which took place after the brit of his second son.[17] As such, Moshe gave the name Eliezer first (to his second son) to commemorate the earlier miracle of being saved from Pharaoh’s sword and when he later circumcised and named his first son, he recognized the assistance that he received from G-d while in a strange land.

The commentaries add[18] that this is why the verse says about each of these sons שֵׁם הָֽאֶחָד – “the name of the one” – as it alludes to one son “belonging” to the mother’s side of the family and the other son “belonging” to the father’s side of the family.

This Mechilta is very difficult to comprehend. How could Moshe agree to have his oldest son worship idols? The commentaries offer several explanations:[19]

●      Saw the Potential

The Ba’al HaTurim writes[20] that Moshe agreed to Yitro’s condition as he sensed that by marrying Tziporah, he would be able to influence the entire family to convert which is what eventually happened.[21] The commentaries add that Moshe was not technically obligated to circumcise his son or to educate him in the belief in one G-d as Tziporah had not yet converted and as such her children were not technically Jewish.[22]

●      Strange Service

Other commentaries hold[23] that Yitro did not mean that Moshe’s first son would serve idols, G-d forbid. Rather, he expected him to become learned in the normative societal practices of the time. For a child of Moshe Rabeinu, this type of information is considered foreign, hence the term Avoda Zara which technically means “strange service.”

●      Foretelling the Outcome

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler explains[24] that Yitro did not ask for any explicit guarantee about Moshe’s son, nor did Moshe give one. Rather, by simply deciding to bring up his son in an environment that had idolatrous influences, Moshe was “guaranteeing” that this son would have idolatrous tendencies. This was born out in the next generation when Gershom’s son became a priest who would sacrifice for the idol known as Pesel Micha (the idol of Micha).[25]

How He Ended Up

Despite his early years in the home of Yitro, the commentaries point out that Gershom ended up being a Tzadik and great Torah scholar) to the extent that Moshe hoped he would be chosen to lead the Jewish people in the next generation.[26] Hashem, however, chose Yehoshua who was on a higher level.

May we merit to bring up our children in holy environments!

[1] Rashi based on Mechilta on Exodus 18:2

[2] Seforno on ibid, 4:20.

[3] Seforno on ibid, verse 24. According to the Seforno, Moshe was present at that time, while according to Rabeinu Chananel (quoted in Rabeinu Bachaye on ibid) he was not present. Accordingly, the verse that says that G-d “sought to kill him” is referring to the baby rather than to Moshe

[4] Pirush HaRosh al HaTorah. See I Kings 9:16 where שִׁלֻּחִים means dowry (the city of Gezer which was given by Pharaoh to his daughter as a dowry when she married King Solomon).

[5] Ha’amek Davar

[6] Pane’ach Raza (by Yitzchak bar Yehudah HaLevy, a French 13th-century Tosafist).

One opinion in the Mechilta 18:2 says that Moshe gave Tziporah a get. See Pirush HaRiva al HaTorah (on Exodus 19:15, quoted in Likutei Sichot, vol. 18, page 288, footnote 34) that this Mechilta is following the view that Yitro came after the giving of the Torah which is why Moshe divorced Tziporah (at that time) so he would be available for G-d to communicate with him at all times.

[7] Ohr HaChaim

[8] Ba’al HaTurim

[9] See Exodus 2:15.

[10] Ohr HaChaim. See Beit Aba by Rabbi Avraham Rappaport (Brooklyn, 2017), page 151 and Nedarim 2b.

[11] Ohr HaChaim on Exodus 2:22. See Beit Aba, quoting the Gerrer Rebbe as to how this can be inferred from the verse.

[12] This follows the opinion that Pharaoh actually died

[13] Bechor Shor

[14] Mechilta 18:3 see also Targum Yonatan on Exodus 4:24 and Yalkut Shimoni 169:6

[15] Some say that this is why Moshe sent Gershom back to Midian with Tziporah rather than keep him in Egypt since he had committed him to Yitro. See also Rabeinu Chananel as quoted in Rabeinu Bachaye on Exodus 4:24.

[16] B’eor Panecha by Rabbi Yisrael Goldberg (Jerusalem, 2019), Parshat Yitro.

[17] But see Exodus 2:22 where the name is mentioned before the death of Pharaoh.

[18] See Chizkuni and Pene’ach Raza on the verse.

[19] Most of these opinions are quoted in Torah Shleimah by Rabbi Menachem Kasher on Exodus 2:21.

Rabbi Kasher writes that the Ibn Ezra (on Exodus 4:23) refers to the interpretation of this Midrash as a שגעון (crazy).

[20] On Exodus 2:16

[21] The Shach al HaTorah adds that, at that time, Yitro was worshiping a new idol every day and was then canceling that worship. As such. Moshe saw his potential and believed that he would come around eventually.

[22] Zayit Ra’anan by the author of the Magen Avraham

[23] Rabeinu Efrayim al HaTorah

[24] Michtav Me’Eliyahu, vol. 1, page 153 and on

[25] See Judges 18:30 and Bava Batra 109b.

[26] Tiferet Tziyon on Bamidbar Rabbah 21:14

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!

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