Mordechai Silverstein

Finding the Right Measure of Justice is Not Easy

Yitro (Jethro), Moshe’s father-in-law, was greatly impressed by the miracles that God wrought on behalf of Moshe and his people, so he offered this effusive prayer of thanksgiving before the God of the children of Israel:

And Yitro said: ‘Blessed is the Lord, who has rescued you from Egypt and from the hand of Pharaoh, who rescued the people from the hand of Egypt. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods, for in this thing that they schemed against them (b’davar asher zadu aleihem)… (Exodus 18:10-11)

The latter segment of this blessing is enigmatic since its seems truncated, therefore, requiring explanation. The following Tannaitic midrash (from the period of the Mishnah) attempts to put some flesh on Yitro’s words:

I (Yitro) already acknowledged Him (God) in the past, but now all the more so, for His name has become great in the world. For the very thoughts that the Egyptians thought to destroy Israel, with that very thing, He punished them, as it says: for in ‘this very thing that they schemed against them’. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Amalek Yitro 1, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 195)

This later post-Talmudic midrash is even more explicit:

Like a man who comes to load a burden on his donkey, and then unloads from it the burden. So too, the Egyptians, who thought to destroy Israel through water, and sank in the water… [namely, they killed the sons of the children of Israel by casting them in the Nile, so their punishment was to be drowned in the Yam Suf.]  (Midrash Tanhuma Yitro 7)

These two midrashim represent examples of “midah k’neged midah – measure for measure”, the rabbinic equivalent of what we call “poetic justice”. The punishment for the crime needs to somehow measure up to or poetically fit the evil act. This plotline and the ideas raised by it serves as the background for an interesting religious and moral question discussed by the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman – Spain, 13th century) who questions whether the above punishment “fit the crime”, since God had already determined in a prophecy given to Avraham that the Egyptians would enslave and afflict the children of Israel:

“For this very thing that they schemed (zadu) against them” – Its explanation is that regarding the manner with which the Egyptians intentionally [harmed] Israel, I [Jethro] now know that the God is greater than all gods.

And the reason is that God had decreed upon Israel that “they (the Egyptians) shall enslave them, and afflict them” (Genesis 15:13), but regarding this there would not have been a great punishment on the Egyptians, [since God had commanded them to do this], but they acted willfully against them, and intended to eradicate them from the world, just as they said: “Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply.” (Exodus 1:10) And he (Pharaoh) commanded the midwives to kill the male children, and he decreed upon [all his people, saying]: “Every son that is born [to the Israelites] you shall cast into the river.” (Exodus 1:22) On account of this, the punishment of total destruction came upon them (the Egyptians).

This is what is meant when it says: “And also that nation that made slaves of them will I judge” (Genesis 15:14), as I have explained: And now, God discerned their thoughts, and took vengeance upon them for their evil intensions… the punishment was for the wicked plans they devised to carry out against the Israelites. “For God sees into the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7), and “exacts justice for the oppressed (Psalms 16:7), “vengeful and is full of wrath” (Nahum 1:2), and no one can deter Him.

Now Onkelos translated [the above Scriptural expression] thus: “for by that very thing with which the Egyptians thought to judge Israel, they themselves were judged.” Onkelos wanted to say that their punishment was on account of the drowning of the [Hebrew] children in the river, which was not part of the Divine decree, “and they shall enslave them, and they shall afflict them”. Therefore, He destroyed them by water. (Ramban on Exodus 18:21)

Ramban’s comments brings to a fore the question of what counts as appropriate punishment for wrong doing. He asserts here that one should only be punished for willful wrongdoing. Consequently, to his thinking, the Egyptians were not punished for enslaving the children of Israel since God had commanded them to do so. They were only punished for murder. And for that, the punishment was in kind. It is this that Yitro counted as divine greatness because, as we well know, carrying out justice is not simple. The Ramban wants to remind us to take this matter very seriously.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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