Moses on Trial

Robbie Harris
Bo By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Jan 23, 1999 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

Perhaps by now you have seen the animated feature, The Prince of Egypt. In one scene, the character of Moses is portrayed as being plagued(!) by his conscience immediately after killing the Egyptian who had been beating the Israelite (see Exodus 2:12). In fact, the movie eliminates the secretive nature of this act as the Biblical narrative presents it (look it up!), and instead depicts Moses as fleeing Egypt — not because the Egyptian authorities are seeking his life — but as a result of his moral abhorrence of his own act. The taking of a human life is judged by this animated pacifist as reason for self-exile from society. Unfortunately, the film does not take up the issue of the wholesale loss of Egyptian life in the ensuing plagues sequence and splitting of the sea. In the movie, Moses never questions God’s fierce methods in freeing the Israelites from slavery. We shall return to this issue below.

The Torah portion of Bo is found in Exodus 10:1–13:16. It continues the plagues narrative that began last week in parashat Va’ayra, and also contains the first detailed legal section in the Pentateuch: the laws concerning the sacrifice of the paschal lamb and the first laws of the Passover holiday. The portion contains what is perhaps one of the most enthralling — and horrific — narratives in the entire Bible: the destruction of all the first-born of Egypt. “In the middle of the night YHVH struck down all of the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians — because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead… the Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead’…” (Exodus 12:29–30; 33). This narrative, coming in fulfillment of the Divine plan announced earlier in the parasha (11:1–8), is intimately related by the text to the observance of the Festival of Passover: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to YHVH, because [God] protected the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians…” (Exodus 12:26–27; see also 12:12). Whereas the eating of matzah is presented as a rite in which to recall the very act of leaving Egypt (Exodus 12:17ff), the pesach sacrifice itself commemorates the slaying of the first-born.

Now the Bible, to be sure, does not express awareness of any of this as a moral dilemma, in the same way that it does not address what we would consider to be God’s morally ambiguous hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (see, for example, Exodus 11:10). According to the Biblical narrative, these are simply ways in which God displays God’s own greatness. After the atrocities inflicted by the Egyptians upon the Israelites — including attempted genocide! — the losses incurred by the Egyptians during the plagues and at the sea were their own “just deserts.” However, the Rabbis who created the Judaism we practice were uncomfortable with some of the ramifications of both the narrative and the laws embedded in it. Why should God have had to kill so many of the Egyptians while saving the Israelites? Couldn’t God have done it in another way? Many of us are aware, for instance, of the midrashic reasoning underlying the practice of spilling drops from the second cup of wine at the Seder, commemorating the loss of Egyptian life instanced by our own redemption from slavery: in the Rabbinic text, God says to the Israelites singing the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15), “My children are drowning in the sea, and yet you are singing praises to Me?” Thus, we diminish the overflowing cup of wine, a symbol of unadulterated joy. Similarly in our parasha (see Exodus 11:5), Rashi, troubled by God’s decree condemning the first-born of all of the Egyptians, even the slaves and captives, explains that since they rejoiced at Israel’s suffering and participated in their debasement, they also merited the punishment.

There is a wonderful, though somewhat inaccessible, midrash in which this sensitivity to even possible unjust suffering is raised in a unique way. The midrash is entitled Petirat Moshe Rabbenu (“The Death of Moses”); it consists of a dialogue between Moses and God, in which Moses attempts to persuade God to revoke God’s own decree of death against him, at least until Moses can live for awhile in the Promised Land. At one point, as the argument sways back and forth, God says to Moses: “Are you greater than Isaac?! Didn’t he also die?” Moses responds: “Yes, but that was just, since Isaac had a terrible fault: he fathered Esau, whose descendants destroyed the Temple and massacred your children!” To this God replies, “Oh! Are you so worried about killing?! Did I ever command you to kill that Egyptian?!”

At this point in the midrash, we recall the animated Moses in The Prince of Egypt: couldn’t Moses have confronted the evil in his own society without himself shedding blood? To recall, the answer that the movie offers is that, at least initially, Moses himself feels too guilty to remain in society. However, the midrashic Moses, in contrast with the animated Moses, doesn’t let God get away with murder! “And you, God,” he retorts, “you killed all of the Egyptian first-born, the innocent along with the guilty, and yet you would kill me on account of the one Egyptian whom I killed in the act of rescuing my fellow?”

You may not be satisfied with the answer that the midrash places in the mouth of God; I know I am not: “The Holy One, Blessed be God, said to him: Do you compare yourself with me?! I can bring death, and life as well, even to those who are already dead! Can you bring the dead back to life?!” This deferral to the World to Come of problems relating to human suffering in this world, does not, of course, settle the issue. We must face the fact that our Torah records that our redemption from slavery was achieved only through the death of countless Egyptians. We can take comfort in the fact that as a society, Egypt was guilty of terrible crimes against humanity, and that many of the Egyptians who were killed were undoubtedly guilty of participating in the atrocities or being indifferent to the suffering in their midst. However, many who were killed surely were innocent. For us, as for the Rabbis, this creates a moral ambiguity that begs resolution. For now, we must suffice ourselves with the Rabbinic rule: ainha-katuv omer elah darsheini, “this text says nothing other than ‘expound me’.” The Torah requires human involvement, especially with regard to its narrative, and moral, gaps.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Robert A. Harris