Richard Cohen’s d’var Torah from 1/2/16: “Hatan Damim”

Shabbat shalom and happy New Year. What I’ll be talking about is the enigmatic episode in parshat Shemot of Hatan Damim, the “Bridegroom of Blood,” which appears at Exodus 4:24-26. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to warn you, there’s a lot of blood, not to mention, a couple of serpents, in this davar! The roadmap is as follows: I’ll first put Hatan Damim in the context of the Exodus story, then talk a little bit about some of the traditional interpretations of the episode before weighing in with my own thoughts.

We’re just beginning parshat Shemot where the focus shifts to the Israelite enslavement in Egypt and to Moses, who’s appointed by God to lead the Israelites. Moses is living life in the slow lane as a shepherd in Midian where he fled after killing an Egyptian taskmaster. At the “burning bush”, God appears to Moses for the first time, and commands him to return to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to free the Israelites. The Hatan Damim episode takes place on Moses’s journey with his wife, Zipporah, and his sons, Gershom and Eliezer, from Midian to Egypt, where he is to meet up with his brother Aaron.

The episode is short:

“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me.’ And when He let him alone, she added, ‘a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”

What could be clearer?

Hatan Damim has been described by one commentator as “arguably the single most bizarre and baffling passage in all the Hebrew Bible.” I would argue that that’s not a negative. This kind of difficult passage challenges us to actively engage with the Torah – laasok b’divrei Torah. How interesting would Torah be, and would it even be read after thousands of years, if everything were simple and obvious? There are no right or wrong interpretations of Hatan Damim. The mitzvah is in the act of engaging with the text.

Hatan Damim falls into the genre of biblical stories told in a shorthand manner because the stories were once well known, and it was therefore unnecessary for the narrator to fill in the details. But for us readers in the 21st century, when the passage says that “God encountered him and sought to kill him”, we might well ask who is “him”? Is it Moses, Gershom or Eliezer? What is the sin that invokes this harsh punishment? How do we understand God “seeking” to kill him? When it says that Zipporah cut off her son’s foreskin, which son is it? How does she know that she should perform a circumcision in response to God’s threat to kill someone? When she touches someone’s legs (probably a euphemism for genitals) with the foreskin, whose genitals are they? When she says “you are a bridegroom of blood to me”, who is she addressing, Moses, Gershom or Eliezer?

Furthermore, what does “hatan damim”, “bridegroom of blood,” even mean? And when it says “He let him alone,” who is God leaving alone? Is Hatan Damim just a weird digression, or does it thematically fit in with the Exodus story? Questions, questions.
Needless to say, over the ages many commentators and scholars have tackled Hatan Damim: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Nachmonides, Rashbam and many more. Most of the classic commentators believe that Moses was the one God sought to kill because he delayed in the circumcision of Eliezer, his younger son. When you’re on a mission from God, you can’t procrastinate. According to Rav Jose, Moses was right to leave Midian immediately and not to endanger Eliezer by circumcising him before setting out on the journey. But once Moses arrived at the encampment, he was close enough to Egypt that further travel would not pose a risk. So Moses should have circumcised Eliezer immediately after arriving at the encampment. His sin was to unnecessarily delay the circumcision while he busied himself with making arrangements for the lodging. To incur a death penalty for such a trivial delay seems excessive, to say the least, especially since Torah does not prescribe any death penalty for delay in circumcision.

And how did Zipporah know that delay in circumcision was the problem? According to Talmud, there were 2 angels at the encampment that turned into serpents. They swallowed Moses from the head down to the privates, disgorged him, and then swallowed him from his legs up to his privates and again disgorged him. This was a subtle message to Zipporah that circumcision was the issue. This was confirmed when God withdrew following the circumcision.

Rashi explains that after Zipporah cuts off Eliezer’s foreskin, she threw it at Moses’s feet, and said to Eliezer, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me.” By that she meant that Eliezer almost caused her bridegroom, Moses, to be killed.

Other commentators disagree that it was Eliezer, the younger son, that Zipporah circumcised and that it was Moses that God sought to kill. Immediately preceding Hatan Damim, God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh: “Israel is my first born son. I have said to you, ‘Let my son go, that he may worship me.’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.” Just as Pharaoh’s first born son deserves death because of Pharaoh’s refusal to allow God’s first born son, Israel, to worship God, so Moses’s first-born son, Gershom, deserves to die because of Moses failure to circumcise him, since circumcision would allow Gershom to serve God and enter into the b’rit, the covenant with God. Symmetry requires that Gershom, as first born, be the one circumcised and the one that God seeks to kill. And if Moses has failed to allow his own son to serve God, how qualified is he to deliver the message to Pharaoh that Pharaoh must permit the Israelites to serve God?

For traditional scholars, a major lesson of Hatan Damim is the importance of circumcision. In Genesis, circumcision is the sign of the covenant that God makes with Abraham and his descendants. Any male not circumcised is cut off from his people. And Hatan Damim reinforces this message: however great Moses’s merit and righteousness may have been, they did not protect him when he delayed circumcising his son. Several scholars see the purpose of Hatan Damim to be an object lesson to Moses. “Moses, you’ve personally experienced the mortal danger of delaying the circumcising (that is, redeeming) of your son. Because now, you’re entrusted with the redemption of the Israelites. Heaven forbid you should delay or fail in this infinitely more important venture.

But circumcision, according to other commentators, plays a deeper role in Hatan Damim.

A principle in Torah is that all creation, especially the firstborn of people or livestock belongs to God, and that human use is forbidden until redemption takes place. The redemption can take the form of a sacrifice, a ritual that acknowledges God’s ownership. So, circumcision is like a miniature sacrifice, and the shedding of blood in a circumcision acts to redeem the child. On a national scale this takes the form of the redemption of the Jewish people in the Exodus. Parshat Bo makes clear that a male cannot participate in the Passover sacrifice unless he is circumcised. When God kills the first born of the Egyptians in the 10th and final plague, God instructs the Israelites to protect themselves by daubing the blood of the Paschal sacrifice on the lintels and doorposts of their homes. God says: “When I see the blood, I will pass over you…and not smite you.” The same word for daubing (vataga) is used in Hatan Damim when Zipporah touches someone’s legs with the bloody foreskin of her son. In both cases, the protective quality of the ritual comes from the blood being visible. So Hatan Damim links the themes of redemption on an individual level, specifically, redemption of the male child through circumcision, and the redemption of God’s firstborn, the Israelite nation, from slavery.

There are many more interesting takes on Hatan Damim, but I’d like to now offer my own and answer a few of the many questions I raised earlier.

First, what is the meaning of the words “hatan damim”? As Nahum Sarna has noted: “Hatan damim may be a linguistic fossil…the meaning of which has been lost.” No other references to “hatan damim” have been found in ancient writings. But we can make an informed guess. Zipporah, as a Midianite, would have spoken Akkadian, and in that language “hatan” meant “circumcise” or “protect.” In several ancient Semitic societies, including Egypt and Midian, circumcision usually took place at puberty or shortly before marriage. This explains the connection between the word “hatan” and marriage. Now of course, in Hebrew, hatan refers to bridegroom or son-in-law. Given the connection I discussed before between circumcision and redemption and circumcision and the covenant with God, there is a deep overlay of meaning to the word hatan. The usual translation of Zipporah’s lines in the Hatan Damim episode, is: “You are a bridegroom of blood to me…..a bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” A better translation might be “you are my protection of blood” and by virtue of shedding blood in this circumcision, I have protected you (meaning whichever son was circumcised and Moses).

I’d like to offer an alternative translation of the beginning of Hatan Damim. Instead of: “the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him”, I believe the subject should be Moses. In other words, “he [being Moses] encountered the Lord and sought to kill himself [being Moses].” It makes no sense that God, having appointed Moses to the most important mission in Torah, now wants to kill him, whether for a slight delay in circumcising his son or otherwise. Just a few verses before, God assures Moses that he can safely “go back to Egypt, for the men who sought to kill you are dead.” And now God seeks to whack his emissary? It makes less sense to say that God sought to kill an innocent child because he had not been timely circumcised. Moreover, based on the standard translation, this would be the only time in Torah that God sought to kill anyone. When God wants to do something, it’s done. In the words of that great philosopher, Yoda, “There is no try.”

I see this episode as comparable to that of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel at night before crossing the Jabbok River to meet his brother Esau. I believe that Jacob was not literally wrestling with anything other than his own guilt, his own sense of identity and spiritual connection with God. Similarly, before meeting with his brother, Aaron, Moses has a night encounter with God, with the divine within himself. Like Jacob, he must overcome his fear of what lies ahead. To say that Moses has a lot to process would be an understatement. For one thing, he’s likely experiencing an overwhelming identity crisis. He knows he’s a Hebrew, but he was raised and educated as an Egyptian noble, immersed in the culture of Egypt. He then flees to Midian. As the son-in-law of Jethro he’s again in a prestigious position where he’s immersed in Midianite society. He’s got the most tenuous of connections with the Hebrews. Now God is appointing him the agent of the Israelites’ redemption. He’s being asked to abandon his Egyptian and Midianite identities and return to his very shallow Hebrew roots. He’s being asked to make the leap from shepherd to leader. Any personal transformation, any transition is stressful. But what Moses is facing is off the charts.

But allow me to supplement that stress level. Because for many years Moses has been harboring a secret that he must now reveal. Moses first appears to Jethro and his family as an Egyptian noble. I believe there is no chance that Moses told either Zipporah or Jethro about his real identity—an escaped felon of Hebrew slave lineage. Jethro, as priest of Midian, would never have agreed to such a down and out son-in-law. Having married into the family based on a lie, over time it would have become harder and harder, to the point of impossibility, for Moses to come clean about his identity. In fact, when he asks leave of Jethro to return to Egypt, he says “Let me go back to my kinsmen in Egypt and see how they are faring.” Moses is very cagey; he doesn’t outright lie, nor does he reveal the identity of his kinsmen.

But now, they’re on the way to meet Aaron, and Moses has no choice but to disclose who he is. Can you imagine Moses having to tell Zipporah: “Uh, dear, I’ve been meaning to tell you something for the last 15 years, I’m not exactly who you think I am. I’m not actually a prince of Egypt. I’m a Hebrew accused of murder, and my family are all Hebrew slaves in Egypt.” Having to break this to Zipporah is like a 10,000 lb weight on Moses’s shoulders. This overwhelming dread, combined with Moses’s identity crisis and role crisis creates an unbearable burden. The Torah scholar, Pamela Tamarkin Reis, believes that Moses was pushed to a suicidal state—that Moses “sought to kill himself.” At the least, Moses is psychologically and physically paralyzed. It is Zipporah who must take the decisive action to circumcise her son. Moses is clearly in no condition at this moment to assume a leadership or any other role. To use a technical term, Moses is “toast.”

Hatan Damim is Moses’s “dark night of the soul”. It is like a classic “rite of passage” so common in literature. The hero must undergo a dangerous and challenging experience before undertaking the mission. Like Jacob at the Jabbok River, Moses must encounter God. If he is to undertake the redemption of the Israelites, he must first confront who he really is. The issue of identity is a crucial one in parshat Shemot. At the burning bush, Moses asks God to reveal his identity, and now Moses has to ask himself that same question. He must seek integration, to simultaneously hold the disparate and conflicting elements of his past.

Not only must Moses encounter the divine within himself, but he must seek to kill part of himself. He must abandon the Egyptian and the Midianite within himself in favor of the Hebrew. He must kill certain paralyzing mindsets, his feelings of fear and inadequacy that were so evident at the burning bush, before he can confront Pharaoh. He must kill the indecisive, untrusting side of himself if he hopes to be reborn as a leader, capable of pulling off the exodus miracle.

As my friend, Daniel Berlin, notes, psycho-spiritually, what is happening externally to Moses mirrors what is happening internally. The circumcision performed by Zipporah represents the cutting away of barriers between the divine and human, and establishing the most intimate possible connection with God. Perhaps it also represents Moses’s newfound connection with his people, the Israelites, their history and their destiny. And not only a connection with his people, but a connection with himself, with his own newfound identity as a Hebrew, as a leader, as an agent of God. When Zipporah circumcises her son, it represents a symbolic or vicarious circumcising of Moses.

Therefore, I believe that it was Moses’s genitals that she touched with the bloody foreskin to represent that circumcision. So Moses is now both connected with God by virtue of entering into this covenant, and a hatan in the sense of being protected by this ritual of blood. The external circumcision mirrors the inner connection and integration that Moses achieves through his night encounter with the divine at the encampment. What is clear is that Moses emerges from this encounter a changed man. Moses has come to grips with his identity and embraced his appointed role. When he meets Aaron in Egypt, Moses is focused and ready to roll.

So, may we, like Moses not be afraid to encounter the divine; to gain from that encounter a wholeness, an integration, a connection with God; and to make whatever transformation or transition, however painful, we need to make that will enable us to pursue and hopefully accomplish our life’s mission. And may we do so with the same focus and commitment as Moses.

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