This Week's Torah Portion: Moses Kills an Egyptian

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Shëmoth (Exodus I, 1-VI, 1)

With this week’s parasha, we begin the Book of Exodus and the story of  Moses (Moshe).

Every schoolchild knows the basic outline presented in the first two ‘aliyoth of the parasha. The Egyptians, having failed in their attempt to absorb and assimilate the bënei Yisra’él, decide upon persecution and oppression as the solution to the “Jewish question” of their day, culminating in the famous decree of death for all Israelite boy babies.

Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, entrusts her son to a waterproof basket set afloat on the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the basket and rescues the boy, whom she calls Moshe, ki min hamayim mëshithihu (“ … for I pulled him out of the water,” II, 10). Incidentally, it is interesting that the Egyptian word for “water” is moŭ and that še means “go up or out.” Miriam, Moshe’s sister, witnesses the rescue and offers the services of their mother as a wet-nurse, which the Egyptian princess accepts.

Moshe was therefore raised in the royal household as an Egyptian noble: … Vayëhi bayamim hahém vayigdal Moshe (ibid., 11). Rashi, following the Yalqut Shim‘oni, a collection of midrashim, notes that the verb vayigdal cannot possibly connote that Moshe grew in size or age, since the previous verse already informs us vayigdal hayeled (“and the boy grew up”). Thus the second vayigdal refers to “greatness, for Pharaoh appointed him over his household.”

Verse 11 continues: … vayétzé’ el echav vayar’ bësivlotham (“ … and he went out to his brothers and he looked into their sufferings”). The Ha‘améq Davar deduces from the phrase bayamim hahém at the beginning of the verse that Moshe left the palace numerous times in order to investigate the condition and circumstances of the Hebrew slaves (which is also implied by the use of the locative case, bësivlotham, with the verb vayar’). Moshe reached the conclusion that the conditions were far harsher than were justified by their servile status or the exigencies of the royal construction project to which they had been set. It was plain that they were being tormented for torment’s sake.

Having ascertained this, Moshe, the high Egyptian official, now does something extraordinary.

On one of these inspection tours:

… vayar’ ish Mitzri makke ish ‘Ivri mé’echav. Vayifen ko vacho vayar’ ki éyn ish vayach eth haMitzri vayitmënéhu bachol. 

… and he saw an Egpytian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. And he turned here and there and he saw that there was no man, and he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (vv. 11-12).

The next day, we are told, Moshe broke up a quarrel between “two Hebrew men” identified by the Talmud (Nëdarim 64a) as Dathan and Aviram, demanding of the instigator (the rasha‘) Lamma thakke ré‘echa? (“Why should you strike your fellow?”)

The instigator responded:

Mi samëcha lë’ish sar vëshofét ‘aleinu? Halëhorgéni atta omér ka’asher haragta eth heMitzri? Vayira’ Moshe vayomer, Achén noda‘ hadavar.

“Who appointed you a man, officer, and judge over us? Are you talking of killing me, as you did the Egyptian?” And Moshe was afraid and said, “So, the thing is known.”

It is plain from the above that Moshe correctly anticipated trouble over his killing of the Egyptian overseer. Otherwise, why would he have hidden the body? Why else did he become frightened when it became plain that the rasha‘ knew of the incident?

The next verse tells us that when Dathan and Aviram informed Pharaoh of Moshe’s role in the killing, vayëvaqqésh laharog eth Moshe (“and [Pharaoh] sought to kill Moshe;” v. 15), which Rashi says means: “Pharaoh turned him over to a prosecutor to kill him.”


Vayivrach Moshe mipënei Far‘o vayéshev bë’eretz Midyan.

And Moshe fled from Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midyan. (ibid.)

At first blush, this seems a wonderfully disinterested case of law enforcement. Even Moshe, the high government official, is not above the law. Even he must answer to the royal court for murdering a low-level civil servant, this overseer.

However, this view of the enlightened impartiality of Egyptian justice is not necessarily so in the light of a pronouncement of Rabbi Chanina in Sanhedrin 58b. There, in the context of the definition of the seven commandments given to Noach and his sons, and therefore incumbent on all humanity, Rabbi Chanina tells us “an Egyptian who strikes an Israelite is liable for death.”

Now, let’s re-think our scenario: Moshe is a high government official. The Egyptian overseer is guilty of a capital crime. Why, then, should Moshe fear Egyptian justice? Is this not justifiable homicide?

If we look up the actual halacha on which Moshe acted (Hilchoth Mëlachim X, 6), we find that the Rambam rules that “an idolator who strikes an Israelite, even if he merely hurt him in any way, even though he is liable for death, is not killed.”

The commentaries on the Rambam (cf. especially Kesef Mishne and Radvaz ad loc.) explain this seeming contradiction as meaning that the assailant is not liable for a death sentence from a human court, but is subject to mitha bidei shamayim (“death at the hands of Heaven.”)

So the Egyptian, had he been brought to justice, would not have been sentenced to death.

Therefore, presumably, death at the hands of any human agent would not have been justifiable in court, either. This explains why Moshe hid the body, feared Pharaoh’s prosecutor, and fled to Midyan, but leaves us with other, deeper questions.

How could Moshe presume to act as the Egyptian’s judge and executioner? What justification is there for his action?

Why was he never punished for it?

Rabbi Baruch haLévi Epstein, in his Torah Tëmima, considers Moshe’s action in the light of Rabbi Chanina’s pronouncement and the Rambam’s ruling, and concludes that Moshe was acting on a hora’ath sha‘a, a halachic ruling applicable only to a limited time and place, in killing the Egyptian overseer.

The Ha‘améq Davar seems to reach a similar conclusion. When the verse tells us that Moshe looked about and saw ki éyn ish, he says that he saw “there was no-one before whom to report the crime, for all [the Egyptians] were an assemblage of treacherous anti-Semites.” He could find no Egyptian authority, no policeman, who would deal with the issue. Therefore, “in this place where there was no ‘man’, no authority, [Moshe] tried to be a man.”

Rashi offers two homiletic suggestions, based on midrashim, which provide some insight into Moshe’s decision, and incidentally teaches us something about the nature of the sort of person who can make such a decision.

The man who was being beaten was the husband of Shëlomith bath Divri, who had just been raped by the Egyptian (a son was born as a result of the union, who came to a bad end — cf. Leviticus XXIV, 10-23). When her husband came home and discovered what had happened, and the Egyptian realized that he knew, he attacked him. Thus, when the verse says of Moshe vayifen ko vacho vayar’ ki éyn ish, per Rashi, it means that Moshe not only saw what the Egyptian had done to this man at home and in the field, but he also “saw” prophetically that the man was completely debased, and “no worthy person was destined to be descended from him.”

The world was better off without this Egyptian and his loutish seed. This was the basis of Moshe’s hora’ath sha‘a, in which he saw himself as the instrument of Heaven in carrying out the sentence.

The midrash is also telling us, indirectly, that even at this early stage Moshe had reached a level of prophetic ability. Then Rashi cites another midrash, this one based on the rasha’s impertinent response to Moshe. The midrash deduces from the word omér (“saying, talking”) “that Moshe had killed him with the Explicit Name” of G-d. Not only was Moshe an accomplished Torah scholar, he was adept already in the deepest secrets of the Torah. Obviously his mother had been careful and conscientious in ensuring that Moshe had competent mentors and was fully cognizant of the teachings and traditions of Israel!

Therefore, Moshe did not “take the law into his own hands” in killing the Egyptian with a conventional weapon. He invoked the Divine Name, he said something, and the overseer miraculously died. What else could this be, if not mitha bidei shamayim?

But Moshe had also had a revelation. The Even ‘Ezra, commenting on v. 11, writes that Moshe had gone out from the palace to “his Egyptian brothers.Rabbi Sh. Z. Netter, in his supercommentary on the Even ‘Ezra, explains that the Even ‘Ezra does not mean ethnic Egyptians here, but rather the bënei Yisra’él who were then resident in Egypt.

This, in my humble opinion, is a hint at Moshe’s mindset as he embarked on the investigation.

Moshe, as the son of a Hebrew slave who had nonetheless acquired high office, still thought of the Israelites and the Egyptians as fellow-citizens, resident in a common country under a common social system. The Ha‘améq Davar’s comment implies that the verb vayar’ connotes more than simple seeing: it’s insight as opposed to mere sight into the condition of the Hebrew slaves. The scales began to fall from Moshe’s eyes: vayar’ again. The beating sustained by Shëlomith’s husband brought the insight home that he was mé’echav, one of Moshe’s brothers, and not the Egyptian.

Moshe saw that he had to do something, and he acted accordingly, killing the Mitzri. But the midrashim which Rashi cites stress discreetly Moshe’s status as a great Torah sage and prophet to make a point, I believe, about who can and cannot make such a hora’ath sha‘a.

We live in very strained and stressful times. Good and decent people, in particular in Eretz Yisra’él, are subject to horrendous pressures. Almost daily we hear of acts of egregious terrorism, of vicious outrages committed against the most helpless and vulnerable among us: women, children, elderly. For some of us, war-weary lovers of peace, the scales have yet to fall from our eyes that the Palestinian Arabs are not, nor do they yet wish to be our brothers. For others, the temptation to respond, to do something to counter such acts by answering the Arabs measure for measure, outrage for outrage is almost unbearable. It must, nonetheless, be borne.

Only our great scholars can guide us in such decisions, making such hora’oth sha‘a as they see necessary, and it is unlikely that they will involve guns or swords. We fight with the words of our prayers and our Torah.