Thursday, February 17, 2005

Parashat Tetzaveh: Q & A

Dear Blog-Chevrah,

I share with you a question that came my way, arising from a remark in my blog about Parashat Teztaveh. I welcome commentary -- that is what this is all about! -- so please don't be shy. Following is the question (identity of the questioner not revealed, as I am not sure he wants to go public), and my attempt at an answer. Thank you!

On 16 Feb 2005, at 5:26 AM, MOSHE SILVER wrote:

Second, Moshe is a murderer. And a cohen who commits murder no
longer has the capacity to approach the altar in the Kodesh -- the
sacred courtyard -- or the ark in the Kodesh Kodashim -- the inner
Holy of Holies -- to atone for the people.

Dear Moshe,

When you write "murderer", whom do you say was the victim? Do you
mean the Egyptian in Ex 2:12? Although under Egyptian law, this may
have been "murder", accounting for what the fighting Israelites said
subsequently to Moses, nothing in the text implies that this killing
was unjustified in the sight of Hashem.

Given that Moses is holy enough to stand with Hashem on Sinai, it
seems inconsistent from the text to say not holy enough to approach
the altar.

Please explain.


The Midrash describes Moshe arguing with G-d when the time comes for Moshe to write down the passage in Devarim dealing with his own death. He asks G-d why he must die. There is a list of comparisons: Moshe argues that he is more righteous than Abraham, than Noach, than Yosef -- and he brings convincing arguments, none of which G-d directly challenges. At the end of the conversation, Moshe says, So on what basis do you say I should die? G-d's response is a question: "And did I in any way tell you to kill the Egyptian?" The Midrash continues, Moshe was silent and wrote, with tears streaming from his eyes.

It is clear from the sources that Moshe's killing of the Egyptian is not a priaseworthy act: not in the eyes of Egyptian society, to be sure, but also not in the eyes of the Torah, not in the eyes of G-d, and not in the eyes of the Halachah.

The problem your question raises is that Torah / Judaism / G-d are not defined by what we like. Torah is not a collection of moral standards that apply to us when they suit us, and apply differently to the rest of the world if they are nasty to us. Indeed, Torah is not a set of moral standards at all. Both Freud and Hitler stated that the problem posed by the existence of Jews was that we had introduced the notion of Morality into the world, and created havoc. This statement was made by two people who were hostile to Judaism, and it is perceived as true by those who do not understand Torah. Unfortunately, it is also perceived as true by many Jews.

Torah contains many moral dicta, and the laarger Torah, including the rabbinic writings, is rife with moral statements. However our brief, as Jews, is to adhere to Halachah. The highest good, in terms of observance of Mitzvot, is to perform them lishmah -- for their own sake. The rabbis of the gemara concede that many people are not capable of carrying out their observance on that level -- people have different intellectual and spiritual capacities. The rabbis state that it is acceptable if a person who can not act on the level of pure lishmah nonetheless carries out the Mitzvot because of a belief in Reward and Punishment, or because of a conviction that there are overriding Moral Standards that must be adhered to, or for Spiritual Reward. But the driving concept behind all this is that the Mitzvot and the Halachah exist unto themselves and constitute both their own means, and their own end. Their purpose is for Jews to observe them, and thus to perform Avodat HaShem -- service to G-d. To put them in the context of anything else is ultimately to frame them in a human perspective. We may agree that it is impossible to truly know G-d. The Halachah is a means to have a conversation with G-d, even if we can not comprehend G-d. When we learn Torah, when we perform the other Mizvot, we are speaking to G-d in G-d's own language. We may never understand that language, but our need and nature as human beings is to strive. Once we view the world from the human perspective, even that of Morality, we abandon the relationship with G-d and Torah and revert to a relationship with ourselves. Which is, after all, no relationship.

The question of why G-d permits: enslavement in Egypt, the Spanish Inquisition, the Pogroms, the Shoah... all of these are superficial issues. They have at their root the human need for meaning. Someone once said (a Reform rabbi, his name escapes me) that human beings are retroactive meaning-makers. Well put. The "meaning" of Torah is, first and foremost, itself. And that is probably all that we, as human beings, are ever to truly know about G-d. The rest is speculation.

It may be interesting, in a homelitical sense, to speculate that G-d may have thought positively about Moshe's killing the Egyptian. Where does this lead us? We know that G-d converted all the people killed in battle by King David into Korbanot, sacrifrices, and that G-d told David he wuold die as a Tzaddik. One explanation is that David was fighting for the political and religio-national survival of the Jewish people. That same argument does not apply to Moshe and the Mizri.

Another argument is that it was kill or be killed. The gemara in Sanhedrin states that a person is permitted to kill a person who is chasing after someone else to murder that person. This killing is done, partly to save a life (prevent murder) and partly to execute the judgement that should be handed down by the Bet Din anyway. Considering that the Rabbis of the Great Sanhedrin were themselves reluctant to impose the death penalty, even after long days of deliberation, we would be hard pressed to claim that any of us qualifies to make a judgement on the spot to strike someone down on a crowded sidewalk. Moshe himself only carries out these extreme forms of punishment at the direct order of G-d or, as we shall see in Parashat Ki Tissa, to keep G-d's own uncontrollable wrath in check, to prevent total destruction.

The midrash tells of the angels who started singing after the splitting of the sea. When we were singing the Shirah Shel Yam, to celebrate our deliverance from Egypt and the army of Pharoah, the angels started singing as well. G-d asked, Why do you sing? They answered, We are rejoicing because your enemies have been destroyed. G-d became enraged and cried out to all the angels of heaven, Do you rejoice over the destruction of My creation?

The Egyptians are not fair game. Yes, there may have been mitigating circumstances. It is possible -- though by no means clear from the text -- that Moshe may have saved the life of an Israelite by killing the Mizri when he did. But it is crystal clear that the Torah, and the rabbinic tradition in both Aggadah and Halachah, views Moshe as a murderer.

Yours for a better world --



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