by Rabbi Avi Billet
The parsha begins telling us that Yisro heard of what God had done for Israel in taking them out of Egypt. So “Yisro, father-in-law of Moshe, took Zipporah, wife of Moshe, after her having been sent. And her two sons – the name of the one was Gershom, for he said ‘I was a stranger in a foreign land.’ And the name of the one was Eliezer for the God of my father helped me and saved me from the sword of Pharoah.” (Shmot 18:2-4)
A few questions jump out at us. ‘Her’ two sons? Were they not Moshe’s sons as well? When was Eliezer born? Why didn’t the Torah tell us of the birth of Eliezer, in much the same manner it told us of Gershom’s birth? Why is each son called “the one” (ha’echad)? Shouldn’t it say “shem harishon Gershom… v’shem hasheni Eliezer” – the ‘first one’s name’ was Gershom, and the ‘second one’s name’ was Eliezer? We are told that Gershom was named based on something that ‘he said’ – referring to Moshe. But when it comes to the explanation for Eliezer’s name, the verse just goes into the explanation, without suggesting it was something that Moshe had said. Strange. And at what point was Moshe saved from Pharaoh’s sword?
The answers to most of these questions will not be found in the text of the Torah, which leads us to have to look to three sources: Midrashic and Talmudic literature, commentaries, and our own careful reading of the text to find hints from words, letters, and cryptic statements.
There is a wealth of debate over which child was circumcised in the hotel (Shmot 4:23-25), whose life was in danger in that episode, and what the significance of Zipporah performing the circumcision was meant to display.
In the varied Midrashim, there is a wealth of information trying to fill in gaps in Moshe’s formative years, as well as explaining the timeline of his experience when he finally got to Midian and Yisro’s house. One view has Gershom being born years before the Burning Bush. Another has Moshe being held captive by Yisro for 7 years, fed secretly by Zipporah, who became his bride upon his release. There is a point of view that agreements were made as to which child would belong to Moshe, and which would belong to Yisro’s family (though which child was dedicated for such agreements is debated).
Even the idea that Moshe had been saved from Pharaoh’s sword has conflicting Midrashim – one says Moshe’s neck turned hard as marble, another that an angel replaced Moshe, while the verse itself indicates Moshe ran away from Egypt and was never arrested. (2:15)
One of the side stories that can’t be overlooked in trying to put together the hints from the text is where Moshe’s tent was camped when Yisro arrived. Was he near the Israelites, or was he on the mountain? (18:5) What is going on when Aharon and the elders show up to eat with Yisro, “before God?” (18:12) Abravanel suggests Moshe went back to a place he had camped before in his shepherding days – remember that he had visited the Burning Bush when he was working as a shepherd for his father-in-law.
According to Abravanel and Alshikh, the names of the sons were to remind him of all the good he had done and grandeur he had achieved. “Gershom” reminded him of his humble beginnings. Alshikh says Eliezer recalls his being saved from Pharaoh, while Abravanel suggests the name is a reminder that Pharaoh did not have him killed over all the Makkos that he brought on Egypt. Of course, this latter note indicates either that Eliezer was named with a premonition, or that his name was changed when Yisro came to Moshe.
As far their being “her” sons, Alshikh says a man is attracted to a woman on account of her children. On the other hand, it could just be the way Yisro describes his daughter’s kids (as we all do!) – after all, they are referred to as Moshe’s (“his”) sons in verse 18:5. [Though the Mechilta suggests 18:5 actually refers to Yisro's own sons and wife!]
Alshikh suggests Moshe indicated gratitude for living in Yisro’s house through naming his first son Gershom, but that he also never outwardly explained the meaning behind Eliezer’s name. Alshikh assumes Pharaoh also ruled over Midian (many Midrashim link Yisro to Pharaoh’s court), so Moshe did not feel comfortable speaking aloud about being saved from Pharaoh.
Perhaps he didn’t feel that he had been completely saved until God told him at the burning bush that he could go back to Egypt, and would be protected in those journeys. As Eliezer was born around that time, he was named based on the new information Moshe had. (Malbim)
Malbim also suggests that each child’s birth brought with it a new turning point in Moshe’s life. Gershom brought fatherhood and appreciation for his new life in Midian to a whole new level. Eliezer’s birth was at the dawn of his leadership and shepherding the Israelite nation, ready to approach a king, turning Moshe into a new man. This is why each child is introduced with “the name of the one” – because each was unique.
Another view as to Eliezer’s “one”-ness is noted by Alshikh and Rabbenu Bachaye, based on a reference in Divrei Hayamim I 23:17 that Eliezer only had one son, Rechavia. The rabbis teach us (Brachos 7a) that Rechavia had over 600,000 descendants. Calling him “the one” just goes to prove the strength of his family’s multiplication in that from one person came so many descendants.
While the questions with which we began have all been addressed, a couple of thought questions remain. Where is Mt. Sinai – in the Sinai desert (as we know it), or in Midian (modern day Saudi Arabia)? How much was Moshe’s existence in Midian under wraps – was there really a threat from Egypt looming, was Yisro concerned about being caught for harboring a fugitive? And, most curious to me, is Yisro’s age. We know Moshe was 80 when he appeared before Pharaoh. We also know it was not uncommon in that era and region for a much older man to marry a much younger bride (see: forefather Jacob). The Midrash suggests Yisro was very old, having served in Pharaoh’s court before Moshe was born. But what if he was actually a contemporary of Moshe’s – same age? Wouldn’t that change the dynamic of their relationship?
The Torah’s narrative is not officially a history book. But we are to learn from the human stories, the relationships, the shared experiences. This is what gives richness to the Torah’s narrative portions, and connects with our humanity on a most personal level.