In this week’s portion (Shemos) the Hebrew Bible introduces to Moses, through two incidents (Exodus Chapter 2):
“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and he went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brethren. He turned this way and that way and he saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”
The Bible continues:
“He went out the next day, and behold! Two Hebrew men were fighting. He said to the wicked one, ‘Why would you strike your fellow’? He replied: ‘Who appointed you as a prince and leader over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Moses was frightened.”
As a result, he escapes from Egypt. Only later would he return to the country and liberate his people from slavery.
It is no coincidence that these are the only two vignettes the Bible shares with us concerning Moses’ youth in Egypt, and that the Bible emphasizes that these two episodes occurred during two consecutive days. It seems that these two vignettes somehow encapsulate Moses’ life-mission and destiny; they seem to capture his particular story. How so?
Two Conditions of Exile
Exile for the Jewish people consists of two dynamics – oppression from without and erosion from within. The former might be more painful, but the latter is more lethal. Hence, the first and emblematic Jewish leader, Moses, as he is growing into his position, is immediately confronted with these two problems that would define the Jewish condition in exile.
On the first and most basic level, Jewish exile – from Egypt till today – has been defined by the “Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man.” Persecution, abuse, oppression, expulsion, random torture and murders, even genocide, have been the fate of the Jewish people from Pharaoh to Hitler. In almost every generation the Jew needed to reckon with the tragedy of baseless Jewish hatred that never ceased to claim innocent lives. The Jew turns this way and that way and sees “that there is no man” who cares enough. The world will remain silent.
Yet with all of its crude and incomprehensible brutality, Moses finds a solution to this crisis. “He struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Moses taught us, that there are times when we have no choice but to take up arms and strike the enemy, in order to protect innocent lives. The use of moral violence must always be the last resort; but when all other attempts fail, righteous might is the only response to immoral violence.
The Second Day
On the second day, after Moses rescued his fellow Jew from the external enemy, he is confronted with a new challenge: A Jew fighting a Jew. One would think that the solution to this problem would be easier than the former one. After all, this is only a quarrel between Jews themselves. Yet, astoundingly, in this incident Moses fails. His attempt to create reconciliation gets thrown back at him. In a typical Jewish response, Moses is told: “Who appointed you as a prince and leader over us?” Who do you think you are to tell me how to behave?
Anti-Semitism is dangerous, very dangerous, and we need much determination and courage to combat it wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. Yet since the enemy is clearly defined, we have no problem identifying the target and eliminating it, either through peaceful methods or through justified conflict. However, discord within the Jewish people – the strife and mistrust between communities as well as the animosity within communities and families – is a silent disease that eats up at our core, and does not allow us to experience liberation.
The Jewish people has often been threatened by hostile civilizations, from ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union in the twentieth century and fundamentalist Islam in our own times. But the most fateful injuries have been those the Jewish people has inflicted on itself: the division of the kingdom in the days of the First Temple, which brought about the eventual defeat of both halves and the loss of ten of the twelve tribes; the internecine rivalry in the last days of the Second Temple, which brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and the longest exile in Jewish—indeed, in human—history.
There have been only three periods of Jewish sovereignty in four thousand years. Two ended in and because of internal dissension. The third age of sovereignty began in 1948, and already Israeli society is dangerously fragmented. The democratic process alone does not guarantee the existence of the body politic; it needs also some shared culture and identity. Israel at war is defined by its enemies. Israel in pursuit of peace is less easily defined and may erode from within.
When Moses, more than three millennia ago, observed the Jew fighting the Jew, he grew frightened. Moses knew that as long as unity prevailed among his people, no force from without could crush them. But the moment they became fragmented within, their future is dim.
Today, in 2007, we are still in exile, and we suffer from both problems. There are the people who wish to strike us down, and there is conflict within our own ranks. And, just as it was with Moses, it seems at times that the former challenge is easier to address than the latter. It is easier to gain a consensus concerning Ahmadinejad than it is to create peace in a community. Will we at least this time around have the courage to dull our egos, open our hearts and embrace each of our brothers and sisters with unconditional love?