In chapter 2 in the book of Exodus, a difficult text depicts Moses’s first independent action as a grown up: “He turned this way and that, and, seeing there was no one [man] about (eyn ish), he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exod 2:12). The Hebrew eyn ish is problematic. Ish is usually understood to mean a “person”, but it literally means “man” and it occurs 8 times in this chapter. The last ish, is his father-in-law, Reuel (Yitro). His father Amram appears briefly, once, in this chapter, whereas his mother plays a central role. Who are his role models? Men or women? Is Moses on a search for an ish to show him the way? And it is interesting that he ends up with the vision of God in the burning bush. And this same God will be later described as a man of war ish milchama (Exod 15:3). The passage reads:
Sometime after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man, one of his kinsmen. “He turned this way and that, and, seeing no one [man] about (eyn ish), he struck (va-yach) the Egyptian and hid him in the sand….He retorted, “Who made you the man who is chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known (Exod 2:11-14).
When Moses sees the Egyptian beating up someone, he strikes him, i.e. kills him, and hides him, yet the next day, despite no one being about, the Hebrews hear about this as well as Pharaoh. If no one saw Moses, how did the Hebrews and Pharaoh learn of the matter? The artist Arthur Szyk in his Passover Haggadah (1936) has two people peeping behind Moses as he brutally or heroically kills the Egyptian. Is he valorizing, or criticizing the act? When he struck him, did Moses intentionally kill the Egyptian?
It is interesting that the root of the word strike (va-yach) is the same word as the plagues (ma-kot). The punishment that Moses starts; God finishes!!!
Another problem has to do with the issue of morality. Assuming that Moses should be a role model, is that how God’s chosen leader resolves problems, by killing another human being? Our tradition usually praises him for this action; it’s a mitzvah to kill someone in order to preserve another’s live, i.e., the poor slave who was being beaten up by the brutal taskmaster. In this version, he has no choice. He is obligated to do this. But what a way to start to a career!
Every year when we read this, I wonder whether this a typical male solution, that is, going to war, instead of problem solving and compromise. This year, given the state of uncertainty in the aftermath of our elections, I wonder if Moses could have sat the Egyptian down, spoken to him and said, “You know, what you are doing isn’t right. Can’t you find a better way to have an insubordinate slave do his work?” And presumably the Egyptian might have listened to him, he was after all known to be the ward of Pharoah’s daughter who grew up in the palace.
However, Moses seems to have forgotten the lessons of his foremothers (Shifrah and Puah the midwives, his mother Yocheved, his sister Miriam, Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, and his wife Zipporah) when he went out to see his suffering brethren. There is one midrash that hints that killing is not the only way: Although most of the midrashim valorize Moses, there is at least one midrash in which God rebukes Moses. In the midrash about Moses’s death, Midrash Petirat Moshe (dating to between 7th and 11th centuries), it says:
When toward the end of his life Moses tried to stave off death, God said to him: ‘Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?’ Moses answered: ‘You slew all the first-born in Egypt.’ Then God silenced him by saying: ‘Can you liken yourself to Me? I cause death, but I also revive the dead.’
Clearly it is this murderous act according to the sages that kept Moses from entering the promised land. The Midrash comments that killing is acceptable for the Almighty but not for a human being. In a passage with echoes of the Moses story, Isaiah says, “The Lord looked, and it was evil in His eyes that there was no justice. He saw there was no man (eyn ish) and was astonished that no-one intervened, so His own arm brought salvation” (Isa 59:15-16). Was Isaiah, who clearly knew our passage, hinting that there was no person to intervene and so God is the only one whose arm can bring justice to the world. Had Moses followed an alternative course of action, perhaps he would have deserved to go into the Promised Land, instead of being banished from it. Moses, as a man, left the company of nurturing women, went out va-yetzeh, just as Dinah in Genesis 34 went out va-tetzeh, leaving a nurturing family for adventure and both found trouble outside.
At least two questions remain: why did Moses have to kill the Egyptian and from where did he learn how to kill? Was it a survival instinct? Does the act of his being hidden in the basket (va-tizpenehu) parallel his hiding (va-yitmenehu) the Egyptian in the sand? His mother’s act of hiding him was to save his life and Moses’s act of hiding the Egyptian was to save his own skin! Was Moses’s true nature violent? Tradition usually gives Moses a pass and sees him as the figure who displays moral passion and is unable to tolerate injustice. It is interesting that Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) says that if he had grown up normally around men and boys his age, perhaps he would have seen a different way of solving the problem (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 2:3).
I suggest that there is criticism implicit in the text. The act of killing is not condoned by the writer of the text. The first criticism comes from its description of Moses as one who acts furtively: “He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Clearly, the author implies that Moses himself does not think he is doing the right thing. The second criticism comes from one of the two Hebrews who were fighting the next day: “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses’s reaction was fear. The news was out. Did he realize he had done something wrong, or was it the fear of being caught. The text implies the latter. Third, the law of the land makes it clear that Moses did the wrong thing: “When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses.” So, Moses runs away. There is no soul-searching, no apology for his action. He seems to have gotten away scot-free and, moreover, God never directly rebukes him for this action (unless we see the midrash above as a rebuke).
WOMEN AS NURTURERS
But there is a fourth criticism implicit in the text: Moses leaves the nurturing environment of women, he goes out to the world of men. There are no women in this world, only men. They are either slaves or taskmasters. And what does he see in this world of men? He sees a man, an Egyptian, beating another man, an Israelite, a man who is a taskmaster, beating another man who is a slave. There are no women to mediate—and Moses, having left the world of women, the Egyptian Harem, so to speak, does not have a woman’s voice to guide him. It seems he has chosen to leave these voices behind as part of his desire to grow up and be a man. He has gone out!!! So, he acts like a man, and chooses violence over mediation. He only comes to himself when, the next day, he goes out a second time, and is reminded by the two men, this time Israelites, fighting among themselves, that he has chosen the wrong action. He flees to the sanctuary of Midian, to the protection of women, the seven daughters of the Midianite Priest, Reuel (or as he is referred to in chapter 3, Yitro). There he will marry Zipporah, who will continue to protect him, during the strange bloody episode of the bridegroom of blood (Exod 4: 24-26).
There is an interesting midrash about how women are to be preferred in terms of their different approach to conflict when God reflects on his decision to send MEN anashim to spy the land:
…The men hated the Land and [this is evident since the men] said let us make a leader and return to Egypt (Numbers 14:4), while the women loved the Land and said, give us a holding (Numbers 27:4). And so, God said: To my mind, I see from future events that it would be better to send women who love the Land, for they would not speak badly of it. But [God told Moses]: [Send ] yourself [men] – that is, in accordance with your own opinion, for you think that they are fit and that they love the Land. [Go ahead!] send men! That is why [it says] yourself, i.e., according to your opinion, but in My opinion, it would be better to send women (Keli Yakar on Numbers 13:2).
THE EMPHASIS ON THE “MAN” — ISH
Since the word “man” ish appears eight times in Exodus 1-2 (1:1; 2:1,11,12,14,19,20,21), it is as if the narrator who repeats this word is begging us to contrast this with Moses’s previous experience of being surrounded by women.
Is the narrator hinting that this is the source of all our problems; too many people trying to behave like men. It is ironic that Pharaoh only wanted to kill baby boys. He specifically mentions that all the girls should live: וְכָל הַבַּת תְּחַיּוּן. Keep all the girls alive.
If we contrast the repetition of ish, we will see there is the contrast of men’s behavior with that of the women of Exodus. I am not the first to point out that women and men might have different moral sensibilities and that gender differences might play a role in human moral development. Carol Gilligan (b. 1936) the American psychologist attacked those who saw women as less autonomous and less logically developed than men. She wrote that women had different voices than men, and she named her theory about women’s moral sensibilities ‘care ethics’.
Women are nurturers, they sustain life; they know how to handle adversity. They work together and are willing to overlook ethnic differences ( e.g. the Egyptian midwives) and even conspire together to help the human race survive. Using Gilligan to understand Moses, we can say that he stands for the male way of creating a nation, where you have to tear the bond of seeing each other as humans; you have to create hatred of the other in order to be loyal to one another. The women are lifesaving forces. Only Moses, the male Egyptians, and Pharaoh behave with violence, threats and cowardice.
What are the effects of slavery on men? Does it bring the best out of women, and the worst out of men? Then there is the issue of Nature vs. Nurture! Moses’s nature is to act hastily and violently (perhaps that is why God gives him a speech defect, to slow him down). His nurture, until he leaves Pharaoh’s house, is totally by women. (Though to be fair, not necessarily. Perhaps he learnt warfare and wrestling and other manly sports while he was growing up there. We will never know).
The ultimate question of course is why did God choose Moses? Was it because he was willing to act violently against injustice? Perhaps! Yet on the other hand, he is punished when he gives into anger over the incident of getting water from a rock and hits it (Numbers 20:10-13). I would like to believe that the following midrash gives us an answer as to why God chose Moses. It was not the killing of the Egyptian, but rather his compassion for others, i.e. what he learned growing up among women, that lead God to choose Moses.
AND IT CAME TO PASS IN THOSE DAYS, WHEN MOSES WAS GROWN UP (Exodus 2: 11). Moses was twenty years old at the time; some say forty. ‘ When Moses was grown up.’ Does not everyone grow up? Only to teach you that he was abnormal in his growth. AND HE WENT OUT UNTO HIS BRETHREN. This righteous man went out on two occasions and God recorded them one after the other. And he went out on the second day (ib. 3)- these were the two occasions. AND HE LOOKED ON THEIR BURDENS (ibid vs. 11). What is the meaning of AND HE LOOKED? He looked upon their burdens and wept, saying: ‘Woe is me for you; would that I could die for you.’ There is no labor more strenuous than that of handling clay, and he used to shoulder the burdens and help each one. R. Eleazar, son of R. Jose the Galilean, said: He saw great burdens put upon small people and light burdens upon big people, and a man’s burden upon a woman and a woman’s burden upon a man, and the burden which an old man could carry on a youth, and of a youth on an old man. So, he left his suite and rearranged their burdens, pretending all the time to be helping Pharaoh. God then said to him: ‘Thou hast put aside thy work and hast gone to share the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; well, I will also leave those on high and below and only speak with thee.’ Hence it is written: And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see (Exodus 3, 4); because God saw that Moses turned aside from his duties to look upon their burdens, He called unto him out of the midst of the bush (Exodus Rabbah 1:27).
“Petirat Mosheh Rabbenu,” Bet ha-Midrash, Vol. I A. Jellinek, editor (Jerusalem: Bamberger and Wahrmann, 1938): 119.