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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Shemos 5771 "First Things First"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Yediot Acharonot, Evan Ackerman, Friday, November 20, 2009

The Roomba is an autonomous robotic vacuum cleaner sold by iRobot. Under normal operating conditions, it is able to navigate a living space and its obstacles while vacuuming the floor independently, even under beds and cabinets.

About six months ago Efi Frida (39) and her husband Eli (41), from Mizpe Avtalyon in the Galilee, purchased a Roomba to assist them in the household cleaning. The Fridas have two children, Jonathan (7) and Yael (4), in addition to two cats and two dogs.

One evening last week Efi turned on the robot and left the house. When she returned home she noticed that it had stopped and was beeping. She tried to turn it back on but it would not restart. Efi opened the machine and, to her horror, discovered a Vipera Palaestinae, a venomous snake that had been sucked up by the machine.

The snake was wound thoroughly around the cleaning wheel and had received injuries to its head. By the time Eli came home the viper died of its wounds.

When Eli informed “IRobot” of the situation, they were so excited to hear the story that they sent the Frida family a remote control as compensation. “We were very lucky”, sums Eli, “If the snake would have hid in the house and bitten one of the children it could have ended badly.”

The family of Yaakov Avinu grew rapidly. The Egyptians hastily mobilized to impose a Final Solution to solve the (trumped up) problems caused by the burgeoning nation. They enslaved the Jews mercilessly, subjecting them to a horrific and inhumane workload. Years went by, then decades and centuries. The Jews had become an enslaved people, the bane of Egyptian society. But they had scant memories of a glorious past, and nebulous promises of a prominent future.

Finally G-d hearkened to His People’s myriad plaintiff cries and began to pave the way towards their redemption. G-d appeared to Moshe ben Amram and instructed him to set the trajectory in motion by standing before Pharaoh and demanding that he release his Jewish slaves.

Moshe desperately tried to shun the awesome responsibility, reasoning that he was inadequate and incapable. But G-d was adamant that he was the right person for the job and Moshe finally agreed to embrace his mission. Moshe returned to his father-in-law Yisro in Midyan and bid him farewell as he prepared to embark upon his fateful return to Egypt.

After Moshe set out on his way G-d spoke to him again and reiterated the message he was to deliver to Pharaoh. After the Torah concludes quoting G-d’s message to Moshe it immediately segues into a peculiarly traumatic event that occurred to Moshe. “When he was on his way, at the inn, G-d encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, “A husband of blood you are to me.” So he loosened his hold on him; then she said, “A husband of blood because of circumcision.[1]

Rashi explains that an angel in the form of a vicious snake had attacked Moshe. “The angel sought to kill Moshe because he had not circumcised his son Eliezer. Because he was remiss, he was to be punished with the death penalty. Rabbi Yose said: Heaven forbid! He was not remiss. Rather he said, ‘Shall I perform the circumcision and then depart on the journey? Traveling poses a danger to the infant until three days (have elapsed from the circumcision). The Holy One, blessed is He, has commanded me, “Go! Return to Egypt.”’ So why was Moshe to be punished with death? Because he busied himself with arrangements for the inn first. The angel sent to punish him assumed the form of a serpent and swallowed Moshe from his head to his thighs, and then swallowed him again from his feet to that place (of circumcision). Tzipporah understood that it was because he had delayed his son’s circumcision.”

This entire event seems difficult to understand. The fact that Moshe was ‘derelict’ in circumcising his son was only because he was engaged in the most sublime responsibility that he had just been compelled to accept. Moreover, one who is engaged in performing one mitzvah is exempt from performing any other mitzvah that may interfere with his performance of the first mitzvah[2]. So why was Moshe at all liable for not circumcising his son?

Also, why is there no open space in the Torah between G-d’s message to Moshe and this event? It seems that the Torah wishes to emphasize that the two are connected.

I once heard the following explanation: The Torah here is stressing that NO ONE is above the law. Even the great Moshe who was en route to become the emissary of G-d to redeem His people, the future transmitter of the Torah at Sinai, the only mortal who would ever speak to G-d ‘face to face’ in normal conversation, and the consummate leader was subject to the laws and mitzvos like any other Jew. The Shulchan Aruch was written -and is binding - for the simplest Jew to the most erudite scholar.

Rabbi Lazer Shach zt’l[3] explained that perhaps Moshe was indeed exempt from circumcising his son, according to the letter of the law. However, because Moshe was now setting out to fulfill such an integral mission he should have realized that he needed every possible merit that he could accrue. The mitzvah of circumcision is an incredible merit for all those involved, and Moshe should have taken that into account. He may have been exempt, but for the mission he was involved in the merit of that mitzvah was indispensable. The great Moshe was taken to task for failing to realize that point.

Truthfully there is a deeper idea contained in this event, which serves as an invaluable lesson for those involved in communal affairs: A leader or community activist must always remember that although he is involved in holy work, he is never excused from his primary duties – caring for his own family.

There was no greater activist on behalf of his people than Moshe Rabbeinu. Yet he was held accountable for neglecting his responsibility toward his own son. There is no separation between G-d’s message to Moshe regarding saving the nation and the incident with the snake, to demonstrate that just as saving the nation was a binding divine obligation so was Moshe’s responsibility to perform his son’s circumcision. All of one’s responsibilities notwithstanding, one can never forget that his priority is his own family.

This idea does not only apply to the education of one’s children, but in marriage too. Rabbi Chaim Freidlander zt’l[4] explains why marriage is such a necessity for one’s personal growth. It is a wonderful mitzvah to be involved in acts of chessed (kindness) for others. It demonstrates a level of altruism and selflessness, and shows that the doer lives for others, not just for himself. However, if one chooses not to involve himself in any particular chessed for whatever reason, although he forfeits that opportunity, it is not necessarily a detriment to the recipient. Someone else can step in and do what is necessary. However, in regards to emotional, psychological, and physical support of a spouse, only the other spouse has the ability to fulfill those needs. That is chessed that is specifically incumbent upon the spouse and no one can adequately substitute for a spouse.

We lead very busy lives and most of us have many responsibilities that need to be fulfilled without adequate time. Still-in-all, we must realize that our primary responsibility is to our children and to our spouse. There are many responsibilities that others can help us with, but no one can truly be the parent of our children or a supportive mate for our spouse, aside from us[5].

“A husband of blood you are to me”

“He busied himself with arrangements for the inn first”

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[1] 4:24-26

[2] See Succah 25a

[3] MeRosh Amanah

[4] In his pamphlet "וידעת כי שלום אהלך" about marriage

[5] At times life definitely seems to spin like a vacuum cleaner. But no one knows and understands how to help us ‘pluck out the venom’ from our lives like a parent or a spouse.

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