A Deserved Punishment

Shemot By :  Abigail Treu Posted On Dec 25, 2010 / 5771 | Midrash: Between the Lines

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה א

אמרו רז”ל נוגשים היו מן המצריים ושוטרים מישראל, נוגש ממונה על עשרה שוטרים, שוטר ממונה על עשרה מישראל, והיו הנוגשים הולכים לבתי השוטרים בהשכמה להוציאן למלאכתן לקריאת הגבר, פעם אחת הלך נוגש מצרי אצל שוטר ישראל ונתן עיניו באשתו שהיתה יפת תואר בלי מום, עמד לשעת קריאת הגבר והוציאו מביתו וחזר המצרי ובא על אשתו והיתה סבורה שהוא בעלה ונתעברה ממנו, חזר בעלה ומצא המצרי יוצא מביתו שאל אותה שמא נגע בך אמרה לו הן וסבורה אני שאתה הוא, כיון שידע הנוגש שהרגיש בו החזירו לעבודת הפרך והיה מכה אותו ומבקש להרגו, והיה משה רואה אותו ומביט בו וראה ברוח הקודש מה שעשה בבית וראה מה שעתיד לעשות לו בשדה, אמר ודאי זה חייב מיתה, כמו שכתוב (ויקרא כד) ומכה אדם יומת, ולא עוד אלא שבא על אשתו של דתן על כך חייב הריגה, שנא’ (שם /ויקרא/ כ) מות יומת הנואף והנואפת, והיינו דכתיב ויפן כה וכה וגו’, ראה מה עשה לו בבית ומה עשה לו בשדה.

Exodus Rabbah 1:28

He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (Exod. 2:12). The Rabbis said: The taskmasters were Egyptians but the officers were Israelites, 1 taskmaster being appointed over 10 officers and 1 officer over 10 Israelites. The taskmasters used to go to the officers’ houses early in the morning to drag them out to work at cockcrow. Once an Egyptian taskmaster went to a Jewish officer and set eyes upon his wife who was beautiful without blemish. He waited for cockcrow, when he dragged the officer out of his house and then returned to lie down with the woman who thought that it was her husband, with the result that she became pregnant from him. When her husband returned, he discovered the Egyptian emerging from his house. He then asked her: “Did he touch you?” She replied, “Yes, for I thought it was you.” When the taskmaster realized that he was caught, he made him go back to his hard labour, smiting him and trying to slay him. When Moses saw this, he knew by means of the Holy Spirit what had happened in the house and what the Egyptian was about to do in the field, so he said: “This man certainly deserves his death, as it is written: And he that smites any man mortally shall surely be put to death (Lev. 24:17). Moreover, since he cohabited with the wife of Datan he deserves slaying, as it is said: Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death (Lev. 20:10).” Hence does it say And he turned this way and that, namely, he saw what he did to him in the house and what he intended doing to him in the field.

The only thing juicier than a murder mystery is a murder mystery involving illicit sex. The midrashic imagination has woven a wonderful narrative to excuse Moses of the murder he commits in Exodus 2:12. It is a wonderful story from rabbinic literature that is worth sharing in and of itself. The Egyptian taskmaster is not just cruel to the Israelite slaves he oversees; he has also raped a beautiful Israelite wife and now intends to kill the cuckolded Israelite husband. The midrash supplies a double defense for Moses—he was simply carrying out the law, in fact two laws, for the man he killed deserved death twice over for his horrific crimes, both committed and intended.

Because the story is so good, I’ll use the space here to pose questions that I hope will serve as the basis of discussion or private rumination.

  • How does the midrash enhance Moses’s status as a prophet? In what ways does his knowledge of future events (that the Egyptian taskmaster will try to kill the Israelite in the field) help or hurt the broader narrative of Moses’s story?
  • What is the role of the wife here? How do the rabbis treat her victimization? What other responses to the question “Did he touch you?” might we imagine her giving, and how would they affect the story?
  • Does the midrash help the difficulty of the text (the kasha) for you? That is, assuming that the rabbis telling this midrash envisioned it as a way to excuse Moses’s behavior in smiting the Egyptian: did the rationalization work for you? Is Moses exonerated in your mind?