Shemos – Not Fighting Violence with Violence

We begin this week the second book of the Torah with the portion of Shemos, in which we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu. Although Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, he knew he was a Jew and took care of his brethren in the slave pits. In one such episode the Torah relates, “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 man; so he struck 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 going to strike your friend’” (Shemos 2:11-13)? The Torah then tells us how Pharaoh eventually found out what happened and wanted to execute Moshe. The Medrish even relates how the executioner was about to chop off Moshe’s head, but his neck miraculously turned to stone, the blade broke, Moshe was able to free himself and flee.
There are many lessons to be learned from this episode. The Ralbag learns that it is appropriate for a person to watch over his brethren and fight as best as he possibly can against those who show acts of violence against them. By doing this the nation will be stronger and more protected when helped every little bit. We see this from Moshe Rabbeinu who had such an intense will to fight for the plight of the Jews. When he saw the violence perpetrated by the Egyptian, Moshe got up and smote him, placing himself in mortal danger and ultimately being forced to run away.

The Ralbag also learns that when a person sees two people fighting, he should put every effort into removing the arguments and fights from between them so that they won’t hurt each other. All the more so if the people fighting were your own brethren. We see this from the fact the when Moshe Rabbeinu saw two Jews fighting he put in the effort to rebuke them in order to diffuse the argument and fight from between them.

The Ralbag also learns a lesson that it is appropriate for a man of perfection to be emotionally enflamed by acts of violence no matter who it was against, and to put efforts into eliminating them. For this reason the Torah records this story, to show us the emotional charge Moshe had upon witnessing this violence and the power of his bravery in eradicating it, as well as his chivalrous heart. These qualities are what should be permeating a prophet. (Click here fore Hebrew text.)
speaks about how when Moshe saw the Egyptian taskmaster striking the Jew, he saw that there was no man destined to be descended from the Egyptian who would become a convert, and only then did he kill the Egyptian. This seems to imply that had Moshe seen through Divine Intervention that there would have been a convert in the future coming from this person he would not have killed the Egyptian though Jewish Law allows one to defend someone else from attack by another, even if it means killing the attacker. However, if the victim can be saved without killing anyone, he should try. Presumably here Moshe was the prince of Egypt and could have told the Egyptian to let the Jew go, or at least wounded the Egyptian without killing him. But because he saw that there was no worth to this person and the Jew’s life was being threatened, Moshe chose to kill the Egyptian. (Practically though people nowadays can’t really see into the future about a person’s lineage and cannot make the same type of decision as Moshe did unless he feels there is no other way to save the victim’s life). What the Egyptian did was called an act of violence, but Moshe’s response was not considered an act of violence, rather a show of force. We see from here that a person is allowed to use lethal force to defend others when need be, and to eradicate evil from our midst.

However, the next day Moshe saw two Jews fighting and Rashi, quoting a Medrish Rabbah (1:29) points out that these two Jews were Dasan and Aviram. They were the ones who would save save some of the manna [when they had been forbidden to leave it overnight, as in Shemos 16:19, 20]. They also complained a couple of times that it was better to go back to Egypt then to be in the desert, see Bamidbar 14:4, as well as at the Red Sea before it split. Ultimately, they were also part of the rebellion of Korach and were swallowed up with their families by the earth. The Medrish relates that at this time they were trying to kill each other and though it had not come to blows yet before Moshe stopped and reprimanded them. But as the Medrish, Rashi, and in fact the Ralbag both point out, based on a gemara in Sanhedrin 58b, that even just for the effort, i.e. just raising one’s hand to hit his friend, a person is considered wicked.

Why didn’t Moshe hand over the same fate to at least one of these people as he did the Egyptian taskmaster? He saw they were ready to kill each other, even catching one of them raising his hand to smite the other. If he was able to see into the future that nothing would be coming out of the Egyptian in terms of merit, surely he had the ability to see the trouble that Dasan and Aviram would cause amongst the Jews, or at least see that nothing meritorious would come out of them and their families. In fact, the Gur Aryeh says about Dasan and Aviram that they were proponents of evil, namely they were constantly argumentative. So why didn’t Moshe eliminate the problem from the start when he had the opportunity, as he did with the Egyptian? Then all the problems Dasan and Aviram caused in the desert would never have happened.

We must say that Moshe saw that there was zero hope for this Egyptian, either for him to change his ways or his descendants to be better. However, Dasan and Aviram, as evil as they were, and in fact they were never to change, still in all Moshe felt that because they were part of his kinship, he had the potential to get through to them one day, and it was better just to rebuke them in order to dissipate the fight, rather then to get rid of the threat.

This, the Ralbag proves is a sign of a true prophet, one who can lead his people, who has the strength and drive to defend them against evil but also the heart and will to handle the threats from within with the patience to try to change and arouse them to repent.