Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Shemot #1: Moshe/Kayin parallels, and the midrashic vs. pshat narrative

This is from last year, pre-blog. Tomorrow be'ezrat Hashem a post on multi-valence.

In parashat Shemot, Moshe is born, put into the Nile, found by Pharaoh's daughter, and raised in Pharaoh's palace. In Shemot 2:11-12, we are told, "And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand." When this deed is discovered, he becomes a fugitive and flees to Midyan.

This is the second time the Torah gives us an up-close and personal account of murder. The first was, of course, Kayin's slaying of Hevel. That is in Bereishit 4. Kayin was jealous that Hashem has accepted Hevel's offering over his own. God warned him not to act, but we are told "And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him." Hashem asked Kayin where Hevel was, and Kayin replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Then, Hashem said, (4:10-12) "...What have you done? the voice of your brother's blood cries unto me from the ground. And now are you cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto you her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shall you be in the earth. "

There are many similarities between the two accounts. Both Moshe and Kayin are relatively alone when the killing happens. Kayin and Hevel are alone, and Moshe and the Egyptian are alone, except for the Hebrew slave he is saving. Moshe looks this way and that to make sure he is alone, and is upset and must flee. So both were alone, and hoped the deed would not be discovered.

Both Kayin and Moshe go on with their lives, pretending that the murder did not happen. But Hashem confronts Kayin lets him know that He knows what happened. Similarly, Moshe intercedes in a fight between two Hebrews (midrash says Datan and Abiram), who ask if he intends to slay them as he slew the Egyptian, and so Moshe knows that the matter is known (2:14).

Both Kayin and Moshe must go into exile - Kayin as a fugitive, as a punishment from Hashem, and Moshe, to flee the sword of Pharaoh (2:15)

In both instances, the ground plays an active role in concealing the deed. By Kayin, the ground absorbs Hevel's blood, and Hashem curses the ground because of it. Similarly, Moshe buried the dead Egyptian in the sand. Indeed, the midrash highlights this very point by explaining that, in the Plague of Lice, Aaron and not Moshe hits the ground, because Moshe has a debt of gratitude to the sand which concealed the Egyptian.

Also, brothers play a role. In Kayin's case, he killed his brother in an act partially sparked by sibling rivalry. Moshe's act was in defence of his brother. The Torah informs us that he went out to see the burdens of his brothers, and saw an Egyptian hitting a Hebrew, one of his brothers. Thus, he acted to protect his brother, the reverse motivation of that of Kayin.

The parallels do not end there. Bereishit 4:10 has Hashem telling Kayin, "the voice of your brother's blood cries out to me." In Hebrew, that is "Kol Demei Achicha Zoakim Eilay." The word for blood is not Dam, but Demei, which is plural. It means bloods. Zoakim means cries, but if it a plural verb - many are crying, not just one. The midrash explains the plurality by saying not just Hevel's blood cried out to Hashem but all the blood of the descendants who would have been born were crying out as well. For someone so far back in time, when there was only one other (later another), he would probably have had as many descendants as his brothers, so we are talking about 1/2 or 1/3 of the world's population. (Of course, they were all wiped out in the flood save Noach and his family, but still that is a lot of people.) The blood of Hevel and the blood of his descendants until the end of time cried out to Hashe. This goes to show us that if you take one life, it is as if you have destroyed an entire world, and if you save one life, it is considered as if you saved the entire world.

Similarly, when Moshe slays the Egyptian, we are told (2:12) "Vayifen Ko VeCho Vayaar Ki Ein Ish." He looked this way and that, and saw that there was no man. The midrash, cited by Rashi on that pasuk, explains this not as Moshe looking around to make sure he would not be seen by someone, but rather as Moshe looking with Ruach Hakodosh into future generations and seeing that had this Egyptian lived, no descendant of his would have converted to Judaism. I think a similar idea is at play here as before. The midrash is noting that by taking a life, Moshe takes not just that life but the lives of all future descendants of that life. Thus, killing is a really big deal - a life is not to be taken lightly. The midrash excuses Moshe by explaining that he looked to the future and found no merit in any possible future descendant.

This does *not* mean to imply that Jewish blood is dear and non-Jewish blood is cheap. But, it *is* predicated on the idea that life is not valuable in and of itself, but rather life is valuable if spent in service of Hashem, and thus a descendant who would convert and thus serve Hashem, as well as all his descendants, would provide reason not to kill the Egyptian despite his cruelty. Thus, it is a modification and refinement of the idea
presented by the midrash about Kayin.

To reiterate, the idea of the midrash is that Moshe weighed all future generations that would come from the Egyptian which would be cut off by the slaying of the Egyptian before taking action.

Some people ask a question - Rashi right beforehand (on 2:11) cites another midrash that the man being beaten was the husband of Shlomit bat Dibri, and the Egyptian had fooled Shlomit into thinking he was her husband and she had conceived. Shlomit's husband suspected and the Egyptian sensed this, and for this reason he was beating Shlomit's husband. The Egyptian thus fathered Shlomit bat Divri's son, who we see later on is described as the son of Shlomit bat Dibri and an Egyptian man. Shlomit's son curses Hashem and is executed for his trouble.

If so, we see the Egyptian indeed did have a Jewish descendant, though he did not really last in terms of having other descendants, nor was he successful as a servant of Hashem.

Thus, some people ask a question of the contradiction these two midrashim present. One midrash says that the Egyptian did not have Jewish descendants, while another states that the Egyptian did have a Jewish son (one born of a Jewish mother).

I intentionally stated the contradiction above ambiguously. What the former midrash *actually* states is that the Egyptian would have no descendents who would *convert*, whereas his son was Jewish and did not convert. But, that answer is just semantics - why should conversion matter so much as being Jewish?

If this question seems weak, it is because I did my job in explaining the import of the midrash. The midrash is concerned with the depriving possible future descendants of life. The son of the Egyptian and Shlomit had already been conceived. Thus, the Egyptian's death did not impact Shlomit's son insofar as depriving him of life. The distinction of convert versus JFB is indeed semantics and is not pertinent to our discussion.

The message of this dvar torah, in case it wasn't obvious, is that human life is sacred, for man was created betzelem elokim, in the image of God. As such, killing, even in such circumstances as that which faced Moshe (his killing of the Egyptian is regarded as a positive thing) is quite a serious matter, and it was proper for Moshe to reflect on this seriousness and weigh the matter before acting.

Before I leave off, I would just like two point out that we are presented with two versions of the account of Moshe killing the Egyptian. One is the pashut pshat, without midrashic elaboration, and the other is the midrashic account. Both are valuable, but it is very easy to lose sight of the pshat account if one reads with Rashi.

In the pshat account, Moshe is of Hebrew descent, but is drawn from a life of slavery or death and lives a privelaged life as a member of Pharaoh's house. Yet, he yearns to be close to his brothers and visits them as they struggle in their burdens. Seeing an Egyptian taskmaster whip a slave, as no doubt happens often, he is enraged and, in an act of Hebrew Nationalism (he looks up to a higher authority), righteous indignation, and rage on behalf of his family, he strikes out at the oppressor and kills him. Afterwards, he realizes what he has done and tries to hide the deed by burying it under the sand. He still feels close to the Jews and visits them as they work. He injects himself in an internal dispute between two Jews and they reject him as an outsider, asking who he is to judge over them, as an outsider, a statement similar to that of the Sodomites in their complaint to Lot. The refer to his slaying of the Egyptian, acting if he will execute them as well. At that, Moshe's world comes crashing down upon him. He has been rejected by the Jews, and since his crime has been discovered, he loses his priveleged life as an Egyptian and must flee as a fugitive. He helps some girls in Midian, is referred to as an Egyptian rather than a Hebrew, and is accepted as a member of the family. He lives in Midian content, until Hashem sends him back. His complaints, naturally, is that Pharaoh will not listen to him, nor will the Jews listen to him. There is a lot of raw emotion in this narrative, and it is worthwhile to pay attention.

The midrashic account presents a far different picture of Moshe. What we must bear in mind is that midrash is not monolithic. It is the product of drash from multiple members of Chazal, and many might disagree with others. As a result, it is not trivial to construct a consistent picture. One midrash might contradict another, and two midrashim might derive from different readings of the same pasuk, and thus are surely not to be placed together. So, there are truly many many many different midrashic pictures of this, with perhaps much of the story as above with a few midrashic changes here and there.

Nonetheless, I speak of the picture most people get from the chumash, particularly from Rashi (who cites midrashim left and right).

In "the" drash account, Moshe does not act on impulse or from raw emotion. He is raised in Pharaoh's house, and goes out to see his brothers. A crime of adultery was committed by the Egyptian, and now the Egyptian intends to slay the slave = the husband of Shlomit, in order to cover up his own crime. Moshe already has Ruach HaKodesh and thus is able to determine the entire situation. He determines that the halacha is that he should kill the Egyptian. Thus, his brotherly rage and indignation give way to Divine Inspiration and Halachic, Deliberate, Rational Thought. Before slaying the Egyptian, he again uses his Ruach HaKodesh to see any possible descendants, and sees that none will convert. Since, in the cold, rational, spiritual equations, no one of note will be deprived his life, Moshe decides to take action. Rather that striking the Egyptian with a forceful blow with his staff, giving vent to his rage, he simply enunces the Ineffable Name of Hashem (Shem Hameforash), harnessing its power to slay the Egyptian (we know this since Dathan and Aviram say Halihargeni Ata Omer - do you *say* to kill us, as you killed the Egyptian). Moshe at this point in his life should not know the Shem Hameforash, nor should he have ruach hakodesh - he is not yet a prophet. However, these midrashim place him in his later, mature role, of prophet, miracle worker, and lawgiver. The next day he tries to prevent two Jews, who are Dathan and Aviram, from fighting, and their response lets him know that the matter of his killing the Egyptian is known. He is thus contending with Dathan and Aviram and trying to stop them from making conflict, just as he does in his mature, Leader of Israel role (the identification of the two Jews as Dathan and Aviram is midrashic). Moshe says "Achen, Nodah HaDavar." Indeed the matter is known. But the midrash transforms this from an anguished cry of a man who must turn fugitive and abandon his luxurious life, into a moralistic and reflective statement. You see, Moshe was wondering how come the Jews were punished to be slaves and were not redeemed. Now, the matter was known - not the dead Egyptian to Pharoah - but the solution of this puzzle to Moshe. Since they inform on their own people, they do not currently merit salvation. (By the way, from the pshat/emotional perspective, he considers himself one of them in terms of being informed upon.) He is thus placed in the role of pleader of Israel's case to Hashem, and reluctantly admits defeat when faced with the facts, a role he later assumes. Perhaps the goal is to show within the raw material the greatness that eventually emerges.

Both pictures are important ones, but the latter is the most commonly seen. I encourage you to read this parasha from the pshat perspective as well.


Anonymous said...

Sefer HaGilgulim leArizal and other sources mention that Moshe was a gilgul of Chevel. Chevel died because he gazed at the fire eating his korbon and Moshe rectified this by not looking at the Shechinah when he ate with the 70 zekeinim (who did look at it and eventually died). I wonder how this would tie in.

b said...

Why compare a rasha kayin with the tzaddik moshe?And kayin was punished,while moshe did the right thing.Besides the murder od shechem isinbetween these 2 stories.As for the question about the midrash.I would say the answer is that he would have from this moment on no chance of being th cause of furure jewish doros.


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