We are familiar with the dictum that the Torah uses words sparingly. This week’s portion of Yitro presents a challenge to that axiom. In fact with this particular example it is (3) verses rather than words that appear superfluous.
After hearing of the wonders that God performs for His people in bringing them out of Egypt,18:5;
וַיָּבֹ֞א יִתְר֨וֹ חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֛ה וּבָנָ֥יו וְאִשְׁתּ֖וֹ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֗ר אֲשֶׁר־ה֛וּא חֹנֶ֥ה שָׁ֖ם הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹהִֽים׃
Yiro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought Moses’ sons and wife to him in the wilderness, where he was encamped at the mountain of God.
This appears to be a reasonable account of the family reunion, so why preface with the following,18:2-4
וַיִּקַּ֗ח יִתְרוֹ֙ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶת־צִפֹּרָ֖ה אֵ֣שֶׁת מֹשֶׁ֑ה אַחַ֖ר שִׁלּוּחֶֽיהָ׃
And Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent home,
וְאֵ֖ת שְׁנֵ֣י בָנֶ֑יהָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאֶחָד֙ גֵּֽרְשֹׁ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר גֵּ֣ר הָיִ֔יתִי בְּאֶ֖רֶץ נכְרִיָּֽה׃
and her two sons—of whom one was named Gershom, that is to say, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”;
וְשֵׁ֥ם הָאֶחָ֖ד אֱלִיעֶ֑זֶר כִּֽי־אֱלֹהֵ֤י אָבִי֙ בְּעֶזְרִ֔י וַיַּצִּלֵ֖נִי מֵחֶ֥רֶב פַּרְעֹֽה
and the other was named Eliezer, meaning, “The God of my father’s house was my help, delivering me from the sword of Pharaoh.”
In addition to these details, Yitro is referred to as Moses’ father-in-law three times! In the opening verse of the portion and twice in the narrative brought above.
Clearly as an introduction to the Torah to be received in this portion, which also evokes the manner by which the universe was created, we are counterintuitively being reminded that words count.
The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 –1619) a Torah commentator provides a striking insight around the three seemingly redundant verses. He highlights the attention given to the names of Moses’ wife and children which we thought we already knew, but in fact the name and reason for Eliezer being so called is only revealed here. The frightening earlier reference to his being born occurs earlier in a very enigmatic manner, Shemot 4:24,25
וַיְהִ֥י בַדֶּ֖רֶךְ בַּמָּל֑וֹן וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁ֣הוּ יְהֹוָ֔ה וַיְבַקֵּ֖שׁ הֲמִיתֽוֹ׃
At a night encampment on the way (back to Egypt to begin his mission to free the Jews) God encountered Moses and sought to kill him.
Rashi explains, the angel, as messenger from God, sought to kill Moses, because he had not circumcised his son (Eliezer); and because he had been remiss in this, he brought upon himself the punishment of death. This astounding opinion is challenged by a B’raita (a Mishnaic period teaching) that Rashi continues to quote that defends Moses who acted (or chose not to act) out of concern for the welfare and health of his new born son on a journey.
וַתִּקַּ֨ח צִפֹּרָ֜ה צֹ֗ר וַתִּכְרֹת֙ אֶת־ערְלַ֣ת בְּנָ֔הּ וַתַּגַּ֖ע לְרַגְלָ֑יו וַתֹּ֕אמֶר כִּ֧י חֲתַן־דָּמִ֛ים אַתָּ֖ה לִֽי׃
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!”
We will address this incredible account another time, for our purposes what is also conspicuous is that the newborn child does not receive a name following his Brit and it is Zipporah who actually performs the deed as the Mohelet.
So what is the significance of giving such prominence to the names here? The Kli Yakar meticulously expounds; the name Zipporah conjures a bird, pining to return to its nest, Zipporah who has abandoned her home and to a great extent has been abandoned by her husband. The name Gershon their first son, evokes, 2:22 גֵּ֣ר הָיִ֔יתִי בְּאֶ֖רֶץ נכְרִיָּֽה “I (Moses) have been a stranger in a foreign land.”. You should therefore feel compassion for the child who has been a “stranger” in his own home, awaiting and anticipating his father’s return. Eliezer once again invokes your story of how God saved you in a strange land, see that in (the name of) your son.
Essentially Yitro, Moses’ father-in-LAW, is beseeching him to come and meet them, to make up for the lost time and opportunities. He is tenaciously refocusing Moses on Shalom Bayit, a wholeness and well being of family. As a precursor to creating a family through bestowing the Torah, he gently calls Moses’ attention back to his own family album; their stories, celebrations and memories. The names tell it all, as does the name of the portion and perhaps the Book itself – Shemot!