The Dilemma of Moses as Killer

By Charles Rudnick, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class

Shabbat Shalom.

Today’s Torah portion, known as Sh’mot from the Book of Exodus, examines the oppression of the Jewish people in Egypt under Pharaoh, God’s acknowledgement of their suffering, and his decision to send Moses to free the Jews from Egypt.

Within this broader context, Sh’mot tells the story of Moses’ own birth and growth into an adult and a leader of the Jews.  The portion I chanted today focuses on one aspect of this story that I believe is both an integral part of the overall Torah portion and highly illuminating in its own right.  It is also particularly meaningful to me.

We learn that Moses was born following Pharaoh’s order that all Jewish boys in Egypt be killed by throwing them into the Nile River.   Following his birth, Moses’ mother hid him for as long as she could.  When he was three months old, she placed Moses in a wicker basket, which she water-proofed and left along the edge of the Nile.

The basket was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took Moses in and raised him as her own son in Pharaoh’s household.  When he had grown into an adult, one day Moses went out and witnessed an Egyptian beating a Jew.  He reacted by striking down the Egyptian and killing him (he also hid the body).

The next day, Moses went out again and saw two Jewish men fighting.  When he asked one of them why he was hitting the other, the man replied with scorn, telling Moses essentially:  “Who died and made you king?  Are you going to kill me the same way you killed the Egyptian?”  Moses realized his secret was out and, fearing for his life, fled to the land of Midian.

Moses’ actions are both inspiring and troubling, for they raise questions about law and society that are core to my beliefs and much of the work I have done over the years.

On the one hand, Moses demonstrated great bravery by standing up to an Egyptian oppressor to save a fellow Jew from being beaten.  His decision to act in the face of a terrible injustice is admirable, and I’m sure many of us hope that we, too, would have the courage to try and stop an act of physical violence if given the opportunity.

Yet there are also unsettling aspects of Moses’ actions.  Was it really necessary to kill the Egyptian?  Why did he hide the body and try to pretend nothing happened?  One he was discovered, why did he flee the country, rather than stand up and take responsibility for his actions?

It’s important to consider these questions in context.  There are very few details provided about the circumstances surrounding Moses’ killing of the Egyptian, but the evidence suggests Moses was aware of his Jewish heritage at the time – the Torah portion says he “went out to his kinsfolk” and “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen.”   We also know that Pharaoh had inflicted great suffering on the Jewish people.

It is therefore possible that Moses was reacting on behalf of all Jewish people against their oppression, inspired by the injustice he witnessed.  He may also have been conflicted about his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s household while his “kinsmen” lived in servitude, possibly contributing to his violent reaction.

Yet even if we assume these things are true, do they justify or merely help explain Moses’ actions?  Does one person have the right to take justice into his or her own hands?  Moses may have been motivated by moral outrage, but he still killed a man, and did so solely of his own accord.  The Torah does point out that Moses “turned this way and that” to see if anyone was around, which could mean he was trying to find someone else to help stop the beating – or it could mean he wanted to make sure nobody was watching.  Even if there were someone of authority around, Moses had every reason to doubt that justice would be served upon an Egyptian beating a Jew.

These issues resonate uncomfortably with some of the challenges our nation is currently grappling with regarding the treatment of African Americans and other minorities by the police and courts.  Like Moses, many people in communities of color have ample reason to distrust our system of justice, and some choose to take matters into their own hands.  When protestors burn cars or buildings, some may just want to destroy property or steal, but others are motivated by moral outrage at a system that has historically treated them or their “kinsmen” unfairly.  As with Moses, this may not justify their actions, but it provides context and helps us understand them.  And in both cases, it speaks loudly to the dangers of a system in which all people are not treated equally, and where the rule of law is being undermined by a lack of trust.

The dangers are not esoteric; they are real.  One of the main reasons this Torah portion struck a chord with me is my lifelong belief in, and commitment to, the rule of law.  Just ask my kids – to their bewilderment, the phrase “rule of law” comes up frequently in our house!  I have always believed that a society governed by fair laws, administered impartially, is fundamental to protecting rights, to resolving disputes, and to creating the trust that is essential to the fabric of any civil society.

It was for these reasons that I spent several years working to strengthen the rule of law in emerging democracies such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania.  I have seen what happens in societies that lack the rule of the law — and the needless suffering and chaos that can result.

In 1995, I arrived in Sarajevo at the tail end of a brutal, three-year war, charged with helping to rebuild a legal system that had suffered through war as well as 50 years of Communism.  I was surprised to hear the same refrain over and over again:  our number one priority must be to re-establish faith in the courts.  Granted, I was running a legal reform project, but I was struck by the fact that academics, government officials, members of the legal community, and ordinary citizens all felt that creating a trust-worthy system of justice was essential to helping that country rebuild.  The lack of such faith had undermined citizens’ confidence in their entire government, and contributed to the fraying of that society.

Here at home, we need to do whatever is necessary to rebuild some of the lost trust in our system and strengthen our rule of law against further erosion.  I think today’s Torah portion provides an example of how we as individuals can play a part in this process, at a very human level.

As I consider the implications of Moses’ actions, my disquiet at his decision to take the law into his own hands is somewhat tempered by God’s apparent forgiveness of him for murdering the Egyptian.  Perhaps God understood that Moses acted to save the life of another, and therefore felt his actions were justified.  As a “rule of law” guy, this type of rationale by a legitimate authority certainly gives me comfort.  In addition, we see later in Sh’mot that God chooses Moses as the person to return to Egypt and free the Jews from servitude.  It’s hard to think of a more ringing endorsement of Moses’ character, and I find myself inspired to give Moses the benefit of the doubt, even if I don’t fully understand all the facts.

Similarly, I hope that as our country continues to struggle with the fallout of the recent crises in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland – no matter which side of the issue we find ourselves – we can try to step back and give those on the other side the benefit of the doubt; try to appreciate the context for their actions; and perhaps use this openness as a foundation for strengthening our trust and improving how we treat each other, both individually and within our system of justice.

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