Torah Portion of the Week: Moses’ War Against Injustice

Parashat Shemot: If the People of Israel began as a family, they can always be considered an extended family.

'Moses Ordering the Slaughter of the Midianites,' by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert.
Wikimedia Commons

In the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1), the term b’nei Yisrael” (Children of Israel) is used almost literally to refer to the offspring of a man named Israel: “Now these are the names of the children of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; every man came with his household” (Exodus 1:1). A few verses later, the Torah states: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exod.1:7). In that passage, the same term refers to a large ethnic group with considerable influence in Egypt – as Pharaoh tells his subjects: “Behold, the People of the Children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us” (Exod.1:9). Within nine verses, a family becomes a nation.

This description of the creation of the Israelite people has dramatic consequences for the concept of Jewish nationhood: If the People of Israel began as a family, they can always be considered an extended family. We cannot underestimate the importance of this familial image, which determines even today how many Jews see themselves and their compatriots.

Moses expresses the perception that the Hebrews’ national solidarity is based on family ties when he begs Jethro, his father-in-law, “Let me go, I pray thee, and return unto my brethren that are in Egypt, and see whether they be yet alive” (Exod. 4:18). Although Jethro is himself a priest, Moses does not present his own personal mission to him in religious terms – as being connected to God’s revelation of himself to Moses – but rather as a self-understood family obligation.

Even when he is still an Egyptian prince, before meeting Jethro and being appointed God’s emissary, Moses identifies with his people and sees them as brothers and sisters. His first recorded act is to save one of them from a foreigner: “ and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand” (Exod. 2:11-12).

The phrase “when he saw that there was no man” can be interpreted in two ways: Moses realizes there is nobody else nearby who intends to intervene and defend the Hebrew slave or, alternatively Moses sees no danger of being arrested for killing an Egyptian. In any event, he reacts quickly and intuitively.

Initially, Moses believes that the conflict is between good and bad individuals, and makes a clear association between good people and his own people – that is, members of his own extended family – and between bad people and foreigners. However, he soon finds himself in a different situation: “And he went out the second day, and, behold, two men of the Hebrews were striving together” (Exod. 2:13).

In contrast with the incident involving the Egyptian, Moses does not hurry to draw his sword this time. Instead, he first tries to clarify the circumstances: “... and he said to him that did the wrong: ‘Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?’” (Exod. 2:13). Although Moses knows which of the two people quarreling is in the wrong, he does not equate a Hebrew villain with an Egyptian one. However, the Hebrew one offers him a counter-argument: “And he said: ‘Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us? Thinkest thou to kill me, as thou didst kill the Egyptian?’” (Exod. 2:14).

The Hebrew villain takes issue with the legitimacy of Moses’ intervention: Moses has not been appointed by anyone to get involved, and, moreover, the Hebrew fears that, in dealing with the disagreement between the two Israelites, he might choose the same course of action he used with respect to the non-Israelite. There is suddenly a question mark over the killing of the Egyptian, previously seen as an act of courage: Was that act a mistake, and not just from a strategic standpoint?

In her commentary on the Book of Exodus, Nechama Leibowitz presents a medieval midrash in which there is a dialogue between Moses, shortly before his death, and God, who criticizes him, asking: “Did I tell you to kill the Egyptian?” Moses becomes defensive, arguing that, in light of the mass killing of the Egyptians by God himself, it would seem strange for God to punish him for killing one Egyptian. However, God puts Moses in his place: “Are you claiming that you are like me, that you have the power to kill and give life? Do you presume that you can give life as I do?” Apparently, God is in essence siding with the Hebrew villain, who asks Moses, “Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?”

When Moses realizes, “Surely the thing is known” (Exod. 2:14), he flees to Midian to escape punishment for killing the Egyptian. However, in Midian as well, Moses continues to fight for justice. After the two previous incidents – involving disputes between an Israelite and a foreigner, and between two Israelites – he experiences a close encounter of a third kind: an internal quarrel between two foreigners. “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters; and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. And the shepherds came and drove them away; but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock” (Exod. 2:16-17). Although no Hebrews are involved in this incident, Moses cannot remain indifferent: Seeking justice, he intervenes, defending the weak.

Moses does not set out intending to defend the weak from the strong – he simply wants to see how his people are faring: “... he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens” (Exod. 2:11). Initially, one naturally focus on one's own interests; only gradually does an individual's moral-political awareness develop. Slowly, one proceeds from instinctive, exclusive concern for one's own family and nation, to a critical examination of the means used to defend them, and then to intervention in disputes with which one has no connection. Moses’ universal obligation stems from his particularistic commitment.

Perhaps the purpose of this chain of events is to prepare Moses for the supreme mission of leading the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. After witnessing injustice first hand and trying to fight it, he understands why the mission God assigns him is just and not arbitrary. Without the need for guidance or mediation, Moses naturally develops compassion for the weak and hatred for injustice. He is now ready to hear the divine voice.

We see, in the preparatory journey Moses undergoes, that his opposition to Pharaoh’s decrees is not based on the fact that the victims are Jews: In his eyes, injustice is injustice, no matter who the victim is, and it must not be condoned. However, the fact that the Israelites are slaves necessitates a special commitment on Moses’ part to save his nation, his brothers and sisters – and that commitment takes precedence over his obligation to correct the world’s injustices.

After the national and moral struggle against Egyptian slavery ends, the Israelites will also undertake a special commitment, as a result of their prior acquaintance with the sufferings of strangers and minorities: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9).

Ariel Seri-Levi is a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a teacher at the Jerusalem High School for the Arts and a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.