Moshe and the Missing Matriarch (Ideas #92)

There are many interesting differences between Moshe and the forefathers who preceded him. One such difference is highlighted in Parshat Beha'alotecha, where we are told of the separation that took place between Moshe and his wife. This is certainly in marked contrast to the forefathers, whose wives took a central role in their lives and, as a result, left an indelible mark on the Jewish people.


The separation between Moshe and his wife actually only seems to be a culmination of Tzipporah's ostensibly shadow-like existence throughout. Compared with the description in Bereshit of the various marriages of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the story of Moshe and Tzipporah is highly truncated. This is particularly perplexing, since the Torah gives us more detail about Moshe's life than it does about any of the patriarchs.


One could suggest that there was a greater need for the feminine influence in the formative stage of the Jewish people represented in Sefer Bereshit. This is certainly true. Yet Tzipporah's lack of presence is not only a question of our need for the matriarchs as opposed to our need for Tzipporah. It appears that it also has much to do with Moshe's unique status and role.


Moshe's separation from his spouse was an anomaly in early Jewish history, difficult to understand for even his sister and brother. It is precisely by communing with his wife that the loneliest of men can find a needed vestige of existential companionship. It is well known that Rav Soloveitchik, the author of the somewhat autobiographical Lonely Man of Faith,found great solace in the companionship of his wife. Such companionship allows a person to find the strength to endure isolation from others when such separation is necessary.


What the Torah explains via G-d's words to Miriam and Aharon is that Moshe was different. It appears that the one who would receive the Torah could not be entirely “human.” The level of uninterrupted spirituality required for such a task would require someone removed from the human condition. Close involvement with someone else, no matter how spiritually uplifting, distances him from direct involvement with G-d. Indeed, the angels' objection to Moshe receiving the Torah is couched in the phrase that he “was born of a woman.” Very simply, the angels' complaint was that he could never escape his human nature and so could not ever climb to the level of what was required for the receiving of the Torah. 


One may then raise the question of why should Moshe have gotten married to begin with. I believe that there are two answers. On a very basic level, a person has to develop into greatness. This means that the Moshe who married Tzipporah was not the same Moshe who would later separate from her. But there is perhaps another more important answer. Marriage is an important part of human life and a person who does not know it from the inside cannot properly lead other people in living their lives. Even if abstinence allows a person to focus more on the spiritual (as with the Talmud's Ben Azzai), it still prevents them from a deeper understanding of this central part of human existence. Though the receiver of the Torah could not be totally human, the first teacher of the Torah could not be anything but completely human. While Moshe had to be as removed as any human being would ever be, he simultaneously had to be personally familiar with what human life is about.


The fact that Moshe apparently had to be married and a father of children is quite significant. On some level, Moshe represents Judaism's ideal man. His need for sublime separation is not a surprise; that it is intuitive is only reinforced by parallel figures in other religions who were even more removed from their humanness than Moshe. What is astounding, however, is Judaism's insistence that Moshe also be very much a human being.


Thus, the ideal Jew had to be connected to mankind from the inside. Even if it may have compromised his communion with G-d, his connection to mankind gave that communion its raison d'etre. And so to the Jewish people, Moshe is not primarily our prophet or our hero, but rather Moshe Rabbenu, Moshe our teacher. The ideal Jew is the one who can teach us about life by understanding it from man's perspective as well as G-d's perspective.



And what of Tzipporah? While the midrash tells us that she was not happy about Moshe's separation from her, the Torah itself leaves no such record. In fact, it is interesting that the complaints that are recorded in the Torah come from Moshe's brother and sister and not from his wife. In this, the heroic words of R. Shimon HaAmoni ring very loud, “Ke'shem sh'kebalti schar al ha'derisha, kach ani mekabel schar al haprisha” – the same way that I received reward for action (in his case, biblical interpretation), so too will I receive reward for abstinence (when more appropriate). Without Tzipporah's willingness to accept humanity's need for Moshe to separate from her, the Torah could not have been given. Perhaps there has never been as great a silent partner as Tzipporah. In this, the nobility of her silence rings forth for all of history.