Monday, January 08, 2007

The Midrash, the Stick and the Word.

Our parasha tells the story of how Moshe kills the Egyptian (who is hitting the Hebrew). There is a famous Midrash on this (quoted by Rashi 2:14)

הלהרגני אתה אומר, אתה מבקש לא נאמר אלא אתה אומר מכאן אתה למד ששם המפורש הזכיר על המצרי והרגו )שמות רבה פרשה א(

In other words, Moses killed the Egyptian not by clobbering him, but rather by invoking God's explicit name. Now this Midrashic comment is particularly difficult as the text is quite clear that Moshe utilized PHYSICAL force in killing the Egyptian. See the text:

(יא ( וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו: (יב) וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל:

The verb מכה/ויך which is used to depict the Egyptian striking the Jew (the Ivri) is the same verb used to describe Moshe's fatal action. If Moshe is using God's name to kill the Egyptian, might we suggest that the Egyptian was verbally abusing the Hebrew slave? Nם! Clearly the peshat is that Moshe acted violently -he hit the guy!

So what is the Midrash about?

When I have posed this question to students, they frequently suggest that Chazal wanted to see Moshe without blood on his hands. King David is denied the right to build the Beit Mikdash because he has killed. Possibly we also wish to see Moshe as having a clear criminal record! I once heard a lecture at Bar Ilan in which one professor suggested that Chazal who lived in the aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt, shied away from violence as a tool to forward the interests of the Jewish people. After the failed rebellion (which cost many hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives) , they decided that the power of Judaism lay in the area of speech and Limmud Torah rather than the sword. They preferred to express Jewish power through the religious word, rather than through physical force, and hence Chazal here are saying that even Moshe understood that the true power is by invoking God's name. So these readings see this Midrash as adopting a somewhat pacifist tone.

But I would like to suggest an approach that fits quite naturally into Moses' life story. Once when teaching a group at the Women's Beit Midrash in Efrat I presented this Midrash. One lady responded by saying: "Well doesn't Moshe have some trouble knowing when to speak and when to hit?" And suddenly I realized that she had unlocked the key to this Midrash!

Yes! At the rock, we all know the tradition that Moshe should have spoken but he hit (ויך). But there is a wider interplay here between the power of Moshe and the power of God! We all know that Moshe is going to bring מכות against Egypt, but is it HIS force or is it God's force that produces the מכה? When Aharon "strikes" the dust of Egypt producing lice, the Egyptian priests view this as the "hand of God" so already we see two interesting things. Are Moshe's מכות his or God's; and where is the line between Moshe's מכות and his speech in the name of God? After all, Moshe begins his public life with a dearth of speech לא איש דברים אנכי and an excess of מכה, brute force etc. And he ends his life in an excess of speech as he delivers possibly the longest speech ever: Sefer Devarim!

So possibly as we meet Moshe acting independently for the first time, the Midrash raises the interesting tension latent in the מכה of Moshe, letting these polar opposites simmer in our imagination for a while.


Anonymous said...

beautiful ideas!
thanks Rav Alex.

larry said...

You may also explain this midrsah using Rabbi Ezra Bick dvar torah on thsi Parasha. the reason Moshe killed the egyptian was because he completely Identified with his brethren the Hebrews. This midrash by bringing god int the picture enforces that concept.