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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Ethical Blindspots

by Rabbi Emile Ackermann (Posted on January 3, 2024)
Topics: Sefer Shemot, Shemot, Torah

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There is a gap in the biblical narrative between Moshe’s birth, his rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter and his awakening to the condition of his “brothers”-Echav. Indeed, it is written

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל-אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ-עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃

Now at that time Moses, having grown up, went among his brothers and witnessed their sufferings. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brothers.

If Moshe grew up in the royal palace, as the biblical text implies, how could he recognize his Hebrew brothers?

Moshe’s escape is first and foremost an escape from himself: he escapes from his Egyptian condition, he leaves the royal palace to go and meet Otherness, and see what is happening in the “real” world, far from the privileged space that protected him. And that’s when he realizes that those he considered his brothers, the Egyptians, are in fact oppressing another people, the Hebrews! The person who resembled him could not therefore be the Egyptian who was doing the injustice, and so he identified with the figure of otherness represented by the Hebrew who was the victim of Egyptian iniquity. He recognizes his brother as “the one to whom I am obliged, the one for whom I am responsible”, as Lévinas puts it. He does so at the risk of his own life (Shemot 2:15), because according to Levinas, “I am responsible for others even if it costs me my life”. Moshe’s first act is to develop an ethical personality that recognizes itself in the Hebrew condition by radically rejecting everything that has made him who he is. The biblical text talks of the advent of the greatest prophet through the break he makes with his environment in the name of the most absolute ethical requirement. This demand is also the source of violence, as he kills an Egyptian who is hitting a Hebrew. It is this ethical demand that marks the beginning of Moshe’s epic journey, as he flees to Midyan, meets Yitro and marries his daughter, and receives the divine vision of the burning bush… A journey that begins with violence, first symbolic and then physical.

The murder of the Egyptian is no mere anecdote: it will have a profound impact on Moshe throughout his life.

Midrashic literature helps us to understand the issues surrounding this episode. At the time when his brother Aaron was appointed high priest, an exegesis in Vayikra Rabbah explains that Moshe was not appointed priest because of the homicide he had committed, which would have been incompatible with the priesthood, just as David did not obtain the right to build the Temple because of the many wars he waged. Violence seems to be a stain that cannot coexist with divine service.

Violence is never without consequences and can even have an impact on future generations: in Parshat Emor, the Torah tells us the story of a man who, finding no place among the various Hebrew encampments, blasphemed the divine name and was eventually put to death. The sages teach us that this man was none other than the son of that “ish mitsri“—Egyptian man—whom Moshe had killed. As the result of the relationship between this Egyptian and his Hebrew mother, he did not have the right to live among the descendants of his mother’s tribe, which was passed on by the father. The blasphemer, the bearer of multiple forms of violence—the violence of the relationship between his father and mother, the violence of his father’s murder and the violence of his own rejection also “went out” (Lev 24:10)—but his going out, parallel to Moshe’s, was a going out from the Hebrew people, whereas the prophet had returned to his people. An exit for an exit.

Finally, the midrash “ptirat Moshe” depicts a dialogue between God and Moshe in which the latter negotiates to postpone his death:

“I am better than all the others”, says Moshe. “Adam ate the fruit, Noah didn’t intervene to save his generation, Abraham raised an evil man!”

God retorts “You killed an Egyptian, the one who hit a Jew”.

“I only killed one, how many have you killed!

“Moshe, I give life and I can take it back.”

This youthful sin was the final nail in Moshe’s coffin, the one that would prevent him from reaching Israel once and for all. While Moshe had begun a radical transformation of his being, this led him to another extreme, which led him to murder.

The ethical obligation towards my brothers and sisters cannot make me forget the one who then becomes Other, whom I struggle to recognize as my fellow man. The story of Moshe reminds us that we are constantly called upon to “step outside” ourselves, to extricate ourselves from our certainties, and to question those around us. Without falling into other certainties, because even the greatest among us had to pay the price.