Last week I wrote about the spiritual barrenness of abstinence. But that is not the whole story.
Towards the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah presents us with a most unusual back-story. The complaint that Miriam and Aharon make about Moshe’s marriage is hard to decipher. It is hard to identify the specific issue they are referring to and perhaps just as hard to understand what it has to do with being a prophet, the topic that ends up being discussed. Many questions are answered, however, by the rabbinic understanding that Moshe’s siblings were being critical of his separation from Tzipporah.
Yet the rabbinic approach here brings up the question of where was Tziporrah in all of this. Even without the rabbinic denouement, the careful reader cannot but ask, “What happened to Tziporrah?” She plays a clear role in Moshe’s early life but once Moshe returns to Egypt and leads the Jews through the desert, we almost never hear about her again. And it is not as if she dies or truly disappears. Moreover, there are certain places we would downright expect to hear about her. According to the approach mentioned above, this week’s parsha should be one of them: Miriam and Aharon speak up about her and on her behalf. Surely we would expect to hear her response or at least, to hear things that she might have said to spur them on to action. Indeed, the midrash fills in this lacuna by having Tzipporah complain as well (Sifrei 99).
We certainly, could understand it if Tziporrah was less than enthusiastic about the arrangement, and may have let that out when not on guard, as suggested by the midrash. But had she really been actively opposed to such a status, we would expect the Torah to report it. After all, it clearly did not shy away from reporting the disputes between the forefathers and their wives. The fact that the Torah does not report open discord leads us to the conclusion that it was not there.
As God makes the argument to Miriam and Aharon, Moshe was not just a prophet. He was in a category all his own. True, he was not born that way and, so, needed to get married. But once he became God’s servant par excellence, it was no longer desirable for him to live a normal married life. Tzipporah had a choice to fight this, since it is almost certainly not what she signed up for. Or she could acquiesce to it, knowing that her sacrifice would bring great benefit to the Jewish people, and to mankind as a whole. The Torah’s not telling us that she fought it would appear that she chose the latter.
Sometimes the greatest challenge is to realize the best thing we can do in a certain situation is nothing at all. As with the matriarchs before her, Tzipporah must have felt that she had an important role to play in Moshe’s life. By doing so, she would give of her best talents and characteristics to the Jewish people. No doubt, she did exactly that, so long as she was together with Moshe. But at a certain point in Moshe’s life, there was more to be gained from her withdrawal than her continued participation in his life.
Tzipporah’s apparent withdrawal from center stage was nothing less than epic. In it, she reminds me of the tanna, R. Shimon HaAmoni, who withdrew his major life teachings because of a singular case that seemed to disprove his theory. Most of us would do whatever we could to avoid such a withdrawal. But Rav Shimon’s belief that people would be disserved by a false theory outweighed his personal interests. And so he sounded out the famous words, doubly true in the case of Tzipporah, “Ke’shem she’kibalti sechar al ha’derisha, kach ani mekabel sechar al haperisha” – the same way that I received reward for action (literally, biblical interpretation), so too will I receive reward for abstinence.
If Moshe was the greatest man that ever lived, his truly silent partner deserves much of the credit for it. And through this, the nobility of Tzipporah’s silence rings forth for all eternity.