Yitro by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Yitro: The Passion of Zipporah

Zipporah bat Yitro v’Athaliah speaks from the depths of her black-walled tent in the desert outside of her hometown of Midian:

And are you gone away from me, my Moses, my Egyptian Prince, my stuttering lordling, father of my sons, Gershom (lit., “Stranger”) and Eliezer (lit., “God is my help”)? Rightly did I name them, for you are a stranger to me, and your mysterious Desert God has become my snare, not my help.

I see you, Moses, my mind’s eye: I behold you, ascending the Mountain all draped in fire. I hear the thunderings of your Jehovah, not unlike those of Baal—and you are my baal, my husband, and my reluctant master. We are apart, in body, heart, and soul, and, truly, Moses, I do not know why. Was I not a good and proper wife to you? Did I not kindle the Sabbath lights as you bade me—those two tiny flares in the night, every Friday? And I cooked whatever you asked me to….

I am grief-stricken, a widow—no, divorcee!—in all but name. My sisters are all married to hard-working, iron-limbed Midianite shepherds, who can guard a flock and sling a stone at any ravaging lion or desperate wolf—and I, the eldest of them all, have no husband. You have a new bride: the Shekhinah, your singular God’s feminine Presence, while His lightning-bolt-thrusting, thunderous-voiced Self volleys down upon us from the heavens—

And what of your two sons, teenagers now? Do you not owe them an explanation? Gershom is the talkative one: daily, hourly, he badgers me: “Where is Abba? When will he return to us? I well understand his devotion to his God—I, too, am devoted to you, Eema, and to Abba—though he is far away. But I must know!”

And my younger son, my baby, my Eliezer, is silent—he sits in a dark corner of our tent, his arms folded, and will not eat or drink. And when I ask him,

“How are you today, Eliezer, dear? Perhaps Abba will come home today; don’t you want to bathe and put on clean clothing?”

He only glares at me and says,

“I never wish to see that man again. And frankly, Eema, I wish you had named me something else.”

“But that name is honorable to both you and to our God, my son,” I reply, “Why would you ever wish to change it?”

He falls silent—but, as I walk back to my kneading-board, I hear him whisper, “He is not my God. And Moses is not my father. Why would my father leave me?”

Then, of course, there is my loving father, High Priest Jethro. He loves to drop by our tent of a sudden, bellowing, “Where is my Princess Zipporah? And where are my two young princes, Gershom and Eliezer?”

Father will not brook any ill-talk of my absentee husband; no. He thinks only of the great fame that proclaiming the One True God—as he calls Him—will bring to his son-in-law, and to our family. As for himself, he boasts, falsely, “I am content to bask in the reflected glory of my son-in-law, Moses, he who is prophet, priest, and spokesman for Jehovah!”

My sister Tamar told me, secretly, that Father has “converted”—her word, not mine—to the Hebrew God-Worship, as well, going so far as to—well, you can guess. And Father has been—again, secretly—making offerings to this God, out there in the desert, where the rocks and lizards can surely keep a secret. He dares not inform his own congregation, our Midianite neighbors, for fear that they will stone him as a heretic.

“You must be patient with your husband and lord, My Dear,” Father whispers to me when the boys are about, “for Moses is surely ascending that holy hillock to be with our—I mean, his—God, and having become His anointed one, there will be no end to his power! Be a good little wifey, won’t you, Dear, and do nothing to interfere with his soon-to-be-burgeoning fame….”

His eyes sparkle from liquor; he wheezes the stench of barley beer into my face—really, I can barely stand it—and his clothes reek of the burnt lambs and goats that he slaughters and thrusts onto his desert-stone-altar, making offering after offering to the God he has chosen. Thankfully, he soon departs—to the tavern in the middle of town—a poor choice of destination for an aged High Priest, who should surely know better!

I wish my mother Athaliah were still alive, but she died young, after birthing too many daughters and no sons, all for the vanity of her ambitious priestly husband, who shouted in her face, “Give me sons! I must have a dynasty, d’ye hear?” I cannot imagine how Father fools our Midianites, we who for so many rains worshiped the Earth-Goddesses, they who brought us the harvest if they chose to answer our prayers. I do miss those days.

Hark, a messenger!

A young man, all covered with desert dust, his feet all mottled with callous, bloody scratches from wilderness thorns all over his legs, stands at the door of my tent, panting. I offer him water or wine, whichever he prefers, but he raises a hand to stop me, and declares in a dust-choked whisper:

“I will not drink nor sup until I have said my piece, My Lady. I bring you the compliments and felicitations of your holy husband, Milord Rabbi Moses, our leader without peer. He bids you and your family pack up for a visit—

(A visit? I think, Is a mere visit sufficient for the wife of his bosom? What became of our marriage vows to one another, to remain faithful at whatever cost? Why does Moses not wish for us to stay with him?)

“–and join our Israelite encampment. Oh, but Moses will not be there when you arrive; he is scheduled to climb the Holy Mount Sinai, there to commune with the Most Sacred God. My Lady, my mission is done: I have spoken my piece, and will drink.”

He seizes the wineskin from my hand, and suckles at it, greedily….

–O Ashtoret, or Jehovah, God of my husband Moses—I am Zipporah, I protest his leaving me—us—like some clay shards by the road. I cannot read the mind, or tell the plans of Moses, but I suspect and fear that they will not involve his family. Woe!

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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