On the Ashrei
Talmud Torah

On Moses and MLK

In this week's Torah portion, we read about Moses seeing an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave; looking both ways as if at a crosswalk; and, seeing no one around, striking down the Egyptian and effectively burying the body. (We also read about a lot of other things, but I'm going to stick with this brief snippet from the start of chapter 2, because I think there's a lot in it.)

So what's with this looking both ways? (In the translation we used in shul today, adapted from the JPS translation, it says "He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.") On the surface, it looks to me like he knew the killing was a dicey proposition, so he was checking for witnesses.

Unsurprisingly, the Talmudic rabbis had a lot to say about this verse. They were writing, remember, in the years following the Bar Kochba revolt, when Rabbi Akiva had led his students against the Romans and they had all died in excruciatingly painful ways. The Talmudic rabbis had a vested interest in de-emphasizing the militarism of the source text, and in finding other ways to interpret what was going on. (See my post about Chanukah: it was these same Talmudic rabbis who opted to de-emphasize that military story and focus instead on the nonviolent miracle of the faith and the oil.)

In the section of Talmud called Midrash Rabbah, the rabbis argue that what Moses saw wasn't merely the absence of witnesses. Rabbi Yehudah said, "[Moses] saw there was no one who would be zealous for the Holy Blessed One [ie, no one else who would do God's work] and so he [Moses] killed him [the overseer]." Later in that same passage, we read that the Sages said, "[Moses] saw that there was no hope that righteous persons would arise from him [the overseer] or his descendents until the end of generations." The Sages then go on to explain that Moses had a chat with the angels, who agreed with him, and gave him license to kill the overseer.

On the one hand, that's a patently ridiculous interpretation. What: could Moses, like Charles Xavier, magically stop time for everyone else in a room? How could he see that none of the overseer's descendants, down until the end of time, would ever be righteous? How could he, in the span of an instant, have a whole drawn-out conversation with the heavenly hosts in order to gain their blessing? Silly Rabbis; tricks are for kids! Stick with the obvious explanation: the guy wanted to avoid witnesses.

On the other hand, there's actually something beautiful in their interpretation. It's a very elegant argument against using lethal force even against one's oppressors. "Sure," the Rabbis are saying, "You can kill your oppressors...as long as you're sure that none of their descendants would ever become righteous, and as long as you've gotten the angels' 'okay' on it. What? You say you can't do that? Well, then, better find another way of resisting oppression!"

Like, say, nonviolent struggle. Like civil disobedience. And hey, look at that, Monday's Martin Luther King Day.

When this connection came up in this morning's Torah discussion, our rabbi smiled (methinks he was hoping we'd make that leap) and recounted something he'd heard on NPR this week: a story about how the Reverend Doctor King had doubts about joining in the bus boycott. Apparently he wasn't positive it was the right thing to do, but did it anyway; and once he'd been arrested, and had seen how the police behaved, he realized that in the wake of his action had come a powerful personal sense of faith.

That ordering -- action, then faith -- is actually very Jewish, my rabbi observed. Our tradition teaches that action comes first, and if you're lucky faith will come later...but you mustn't wait until faith blooms in you to act. If you know there's an injustice, as Dr. King did, as Moses did, you may have to take a leap even if you still have doubts. Since most of us can't rely on counsel from the heavenly hosts, all we can do is hope for the wisdom to see when injustices are being perpetrated, and the courage to do something about the system which enables the injustices to arise. So that we, too, may take part in making our world a better place, and may find (and make) a kind of redemption.