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This Week’s Torah Reading “Shemot” Teaches Us That Violence In The Service Of Justice Is Righteous And That Promised Lands Do Not Have To Be Empty Of Native Or Indigenous Peoples

Moshe gets from the Almighty the unenviable task of dragging unwilling Hebrews from slavery to freedom, from bondage to independence because he is both loving and violent and most of all because he is fiercely loyal to his own kind

Moshe killing the Egyptian (illustration from the “Sister Hagaddah”)
Copyright: British Library [Public domain]

This week we are introduced to a personage who is second only to the Lord himself, Moshe (Moses). He alone, of all mortals is mentioned in the 13 principles of Jewish faith as defined by another Moshe, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, the Rambam, of whom it was said: “from Moshe (the one from the Torah) to Moshe (the one from the Middle Ages) there was no other Moshe”. The Rambam’s principles of Jewish faith were specifically designed to separate the Jewish religion, Judaism, from its offsprings, Christianity and Islam. As both both of these religions were centered on human beings, Jesus and Mohammad, who, in their followers’ eyes superseded Moshe, the Rambam placed in the middle and seventh slot of his Principles, the affirmation that Moshe was the greatest of all prophets, both retroactively and through eternity: “I believe with all my heart that the Moshe’s prophecy was true, and that he was the patriarch of all prophets; those who lived before him and those who lived after him”.

And how did Moshe become such an exalted personage? How did he merit God’s trust to do the nearly impossible, to be His spokesperson on Earth? The Torah is quite explicit about that, so we don’t have to guess. Moshe, who through the vagaries of fate, or perhaps through Divine intervention, had all the privileges of an Egyptian princely upbringing, was a fierce Hebrew nationalist. Moshe did not have dual loyalties, though he might well had been expected to. He had only one – to his blood relatives, the Hebrews.

Of Moshe’s life prior to the chain of events that led him to become one of the best known people who had ever lived we don’t know much. We know he was of the Tribe of Levi, that his mother saved him from the mandatory ethnic cleansing perpetrated against the Hebrews by the Egyptians and had to give him up, that he was found by the pharaoh’s daughter and raised by her, though not unimportantly, he was suckled at his mother’s breast. This story is so iconic in the Western culture that it is worth bringing it here in the Torah’s own language (Exodus 2:1-9, my translation after Chabad):

A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son and when she saw him that he was good, she hid him for three months. When she could no longer hide him, she made for him a reed basket, smeared it with clay and pitch, placed the child into it, and put it into the marsh at the Nile’s edge. His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him. Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe and her maidens were walking along the Nile when she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh and she sent her maidservant and she took it. She opened the basket and she saw the child and behold: he was a weeping boy and she had compassion on him and she said, “This is one of the children of the Hebrews.” The baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, so that she shall nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go!” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him.

What is clear from this account is that neither the finding of baby Moshe’s basket with him in it by the pharaoh’s daughter, nor the subsequent return of him to his mother’s bosom to be suckled (one may assume for a year or so), was a coincidence. Rather, it was a carefully laid and executed plan by Moshe’s mother, another one of those pivotal women whose strength, courage, and cunning made the world we live in today.

The suckling of Moshe at none other than his mother’s, a Levite Hebrew woman’s, bosom is all important. This mother’s milk had a very particular flavor to it, the flavor of destiny, of ethnicity, of priesthood. It was this nourishment that made Moshe seek out his own kind when he was a young man, a prince of Egypt, and it was this milk that made him choose his blood relations over his adoptive ones when the chips were down. Let’s listen to the Torah describe the fateful incident that forever changed the course of history (Exodus 2:11-20, my translation after Chabad):

Now it came to pass in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way and he saw that there was no one around; so he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling and he said to the wicked one, “Why are you striking your friend?” And he retorted, “Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?” Moshe became frightened and said, “Indeed, the matter has now become known!”

Pharaoh heard of this incident, and he sought to slay Moshe; so Moshe fled from before Pharaoh. He stayed in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well. The chief of Midian had seven daughters and they came and drew water from the well and they filled the troughs to water their father’s flocks. Some shepherds came and drove them away, so Moses arose and rescued the girls and watered their flocks. The girls then returned to their father Reuel, and he said, “Why have you come so quickly today?” And they replied, “An Egyptian man rescued us from the hands of the shepherds and he also drew water for us and watered our flocks.” So Reuel said to his daughters, “So where is he? Why have you left the man? Invite him, and let him eat bread.”

What can we learn about Moshe from these three incidents? Most glaringly, that he is unafraid to use violence and knows how to use it well. In his use of violence, Moshe is not the cautious, proportionate kind of guy. On the contrary, he is rash and quick to decisive definitive action. Upon seeing the Egyptian abuse the Hebrews, Moshe could have doubtlessly “pulled rank” on him. He could have given him a talking to. With his standing at court, he could have presumably had him punished. He could have also simply beaten him up. But no, Moshe gets angry, livid, even and he kills the guy.

But an insanity defense, interestingly enough, would not have stood him in good stand here because Moshe’s actions, impulsive as they were, were not those of a madman. Prior to killing the Egyptian, Moshe acertains, or at least he thinks he does, that he is not being watched. These are not the actions of an irrational actor. Moshe observes, adjudicates, arrives at a verdict, and carries it out, but not before he makes sure, or so he believes, that there would be no consequences to his actions.

From the second incident we learn that Moshe values the lives of his own people, the Hebrews, far above those of the Egyptians. When a wicked Hebrew man not only strikes another Hebrew, but also taunts Moshe to his face, Moshe takes no action. Perhaps he was wary of having more than one body pile up in his wake, but surely killing an Egyptian man was a much worse offense than killing a Hebrew, so doing so would not have added much weight to Moshe’s rap sheet. Yet, he walks away.

In the case of the misogynist shepherds who refused to wait their turn while Reuel’s daughters were using the well, likely the only one for many miles, Moshe chases them away, but otherwise refrains from violence. Their offense was not serious enough, apparently, to merit a more severe punishment.

For the next many years, Moshe dwells in Midian with his Midianite wife Zipporah and leads the quiet existence of a bronze-age shepherd until he is cast by the Lord onto the stage of history. So who does the Almighty choose for leadership, for one of the toughest tasks ever given to a man? A task of taking slaves and forging them into an army of fierce fighters, of forging steel swords from a bunch of eternal whiners? He chooses a man, who is a famously and self-avowedly a poor communicator. A fugitive living at the edge of the civilized world, yet one who is well-familiar with it. A man who was born into slavery, but was raised as a warrior prince. A man who is just and harshly so. A man who uses violence routinely, who acts rather than talks.

You know how kindergarten teachers always implore their charges, especially boys, to use their words rather than their fists? Well, Moshe is not such a man. He is a man who is much better with his fists than with his words. Moshe is like a blade that has been perhaps a bit over-hardened, a blade that needed the annealing of several years of family life, a pastoral life in the literal sense, to become the leader that the Almighty needed him to be.

But no blade, no matter how perfect, is of any use if he who wields it doesn’t know why or for what purpose. Moshe’s primary qualification for his role is his abiding, unconditional, irrational, inexhaustible love for his own unlovable, whiny, and endlessly ungrateful people. Moshe loves the Children of Israel, as we shall see in the future, even when they betray him time and time again and drive him to the brink of insanity. He loves them even when they cause him to lose his temper with God himself and forfeit the right to enter the Promised Land.

Moshe’s love for Israel, alone in all of history, mirrors that of God Himself. This is why he is chosen and this is why he does not disappoint.

Moshe, being the prototypical Jew, does not just say “Aye Aye Sir” when commanded by God to lead His people out of the Egyptian bondage. Instead, he negotiates. Following in the footsteps of his ancestor Abraham, he bargains with God for everything up to the point of our notoriously temperamental Heavenly Father losing His temper. Moshe negotiates for the tools to do his job and gets a bagful of snazzy miracles and a public relations chief, his brother Aharon. Having done that, he gets God to disclose to him His plan for His people and it is an interesting one. In the Torah’s words :

Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord God of your forefathers has appeared to me, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “I have surely remembered you and what is being done to you in Egypt.” ‘ And I said, ‘I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivvites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey.’ And they will hearken to your voice, and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him, ‘The Lord God of the Hebrews has happened upon us, and now, let us go for a three days’ journey in the desert and offer up sacrifices to the Lord, our God.’ However, I know that the king of Egypt will not permit you to go, except through a mighty hand. And I will stretch forth My hand and smite the Egyptians with all My miracles that I will wreak in their midst, and afterwards he will send you out. Each woman shall take from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters, and you shall empty out Egypt.”

Moshe answered and said, “Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’ “And the Lord said to him, “What is this in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” And He said, “Cast it to the ground,” and he cast it to the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moshe fled from before it. And the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch forth your hand and take hold of its tail.” So Moshe stretched forth his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand. “In order that they believe that the Lord, the God of their forefathers, has appeared to you, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

And the Lord said further to him, “Now put your hand into your bosom,” and he put his hand into his bosom, and he took it out, and behold, his hand was leprous, white like snow. And He said, “Put your hand back into your bosom,” and he put his hand back into his bosom, and when he took it out of his bosom, it had become again like the rest of his flesh. “And it will come to pass, that if they do not believe you, and they do not heed the voice of the first sign, they will believe the voice of the last sign. And it will come to pass, if they do not believe either of these two signs, and they do not heed your voice, you shall take of the water of the Nile and spill it upon the dry land, and the water that you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry land.”

Moshe said to the Lord, “I beseech You, O Lord. I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” But the Lord said to him, “Who gave man a mouth, or who makes one dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak. “But he said, “I beseech You, O Lord, send now Your message with someone else.” And the Lord’s wrath was kindled against Moshe, and He said, “Is there not Aharon your brother, the Levite? I know that he will surely speak, and behold, he is coming forth toward you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart. You shall speak to him, and you shall put the words into his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will instruct you both what you shall do. And he will speak for you to the people, and it will be that he will be your speaker, and you will be his leader. And you shall take this staff in your hand, with which you shall perform the signs.”

It almost appears that Moshe was about to pull Trump’s favorite trick and walk away from the negotiation, but what is more surprising, is that the trick worked and Moshe got himself a wingman, someone glib of tongue and facile with words, his brother Aharon. Just like with Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, all of whom negotiated with the Almighty, Moshe understood that though his interlocutor was God Himself, the one thing God could not do, would not do, was compel him. God needed his willing cooperation because God needs us to have free will. Even He cannot order us. Even He must convince, cajole, give and take. Perhaps the rules are His, but He must abide by them nonetheless, just like the rest of us.

God equips Moshe with promises to take home to his people. Interestingly, these promises include some more or less innocent and most certainly unwilling third parties. First, the Lord promises His people the ability to loot their Egyptian neighbors. Second, he promises them a land that was already full to the brink.

This second promise is particularly interesting and pertinent today. While the loot could be seen as compensation for labor that the Israelites performed for the Egyptians, one can’t help but wonder what the Canaanites enumerated in God’s promise, all of whom were, unbeknownst to them, about to get wiped clean off the pages of history and of existence, had to to do with any of this.

The rabbinical explanation that the Canaanites were evil idol worshippers does not much appeal to me simply because so were all the other tribes and nations of the time, with the exception of the Israelites and even that exception was shaky for the next thousand years.

The Canaanites were about to become the victims of genocide by the Israelites because sometimes that is how things work out in history. Many historians today think that the Egyptian Exodus story is a myth and that Israelites were themselves Canaanites, ones that coalesced around a strangely monotheistic religion that spread over the region and got to write the history books. Others believe that Hebrews, as the name suggests, were “from away” people who encroached upon the Canaanite city states, mixing with the local population and organically giving rise to what we know of today as Jews.

The Biblical account is, of course, that of conquest with the sword rather than with ideas, but to me that is a mere detail. The fact is that Canaan was far from being, at the end of the second millennium BC, either physically or spiritually empty. It had a large number of walled city states that were old-time vassals of Egypt and had their own religious practices and a rich cultural heritage.

As the temporal and spiritual power of Egypt was waning, something happened and these cities with their distinct cultural identities became subsumed by something else, by a different people, a people with a strong sense of identity, a winning message, as we might say today, a message that they were not shy spreading at the tips of their spears.

The liberal postmodern narrative of “indigenousness”, and “nativity” as conferring upon the claimants to these attributes the crown of righteousness is countermanded by the Torah and as such should not form the basis of the modern Zionist narrative. Are Jews “native” to the lands that now form the modern state of Israel? Are we “indigenous” to the region? Certainly some of us are, maybe all of us to one degree or another. What matters is not whether our genes are somehow indigenous to the narrow strip of land between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea; what matters is that our ideas are. Our culture, by far the most influential in the world, was born in that otherwise wholly insignificant place and it was we who preserved it against impossible odds to this very day.

This is what matters, the Torah teaches us. Our Blessing, our contract with God, our assumption of the duties of a just and moral people is what gave us the right to claim Canaan then as it does now. Being “the first” is neither virtuous, nor even possible in any real sense of the word. There was always someone there before. There is no virtue in indigenousness, no virtue in nativity. Virtue comes from morality and the just use of violence to defend it. This is the moral of this week’s Torah reading and it is as relevant today as it has ever been. Perhaps even more so.

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