Face to Face with Injustice and facing how we act to stop it



David Brown


 I recently took part in the Torah L'Am course, run at JHub and facilitated by Maureen Kendler from the London School of Jewish Studies. As part of the course, I was tasked with creating a Dvar Torah on the text in Shemot (Exodus) where we first meet Moshe and witness his physical and emotional development. 


I recently took part in the Torah L'Am course, run at JHub and facilitated by Maureen Kendler from the London School of Jewish Studies. As part of the course, I was tasked with creating a Dvar Torah on the text in Shemot (Exodus) where we first meet Moshe and witness his physical and emotional development.


Way way back many centuries ago, not long after the bible began, Jacob lived in the land of Canaan, a fine example of a family man? Well not quite, he decieved his own father, favoured one wife and the son she bore him, and whilst Jacob's family might resemble many a typical Jewish family with the infighting and broigus, I don't think murdering whole villages and selling your siblings into slavery is a type of family life to strive for. 

But that is not the point of this Dvar Torah. We join the story just after the trails and tribulations of Joseph's children when just a few generations later Bnei Yisrael, now the Hebrew nation, are in Egypt with a new unfriendly Pharaoh. Ostensibly fearful of the swarming numbers of Hebrews who may join Egypt's enemies in a time of war, Pharaoh first enslaves them, then orders all male born children killed and thrown into the nile. After some brave non compliance of the midwives Shifrah and Puah, we meet Moshe. 

"And the child (Moshe) grew, and she (Moshe's mother) brought him to Pharoah's daughter, and he became her son..."

This initial tale of Moshe growing up deals with a few transformational encounters and his journey towards being an activist, a leader and eventually a liberator. Moshe, a man of privallege and a member of the ruling Egyptian family, begins to leave his familiar surroundings and see  וַיַּרְא lots of things that require action.

First he sees the burden of his brothers, then he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, and after looking this way and that way, kills the Egyptian, and then he sees two Hebrews fighting. He asks one of them why they are stiking their fellow, and when it becomes clear from his answer that his earlier act is known, Moshe runs away. 

Some of the commentators are troubled by Moshe's murderous act and seem very keen to find justification for Moshe to react so violently. Rashi performs some textual acrobatics, citing a later passage in Vayikra (Leviticus 24:11) that implies the Egyptian man in Moshe's text is one who decieved a Hebrew woman by removing her husband from their house, and then after taking his place, having relations with her.  In Ha-Ketav Veha-Kabbalah, Rabbi Ya'akov Tzvi Mecklenburg also asks "how can one kill another human being for simply beating someone!". Rabbi Mecklenburg's response is that when Moshe looked around and saw there was no man, Moshe was hoping one of his Hebrew brethren would intervene, but saw there was no one who took any interest. Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, in his commnetary Ha-emek Ha'Davar, suggests Moshe was looking around seeking to find a way to bring the Egyptian to justice, and seeing there was no man, saw there was no one to whom Moshe could turn. And lastly, in Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah 32:4) Rabbi Yehuda is cited: "Moses saw that there was no one ready to champion the cause of the Holy One Blessed Be He". 

Why are these Rabbi's across two millenia all keen to justify Moshe's actions? Why do they assume that when he looks around and sees no one, that he was looking for something righteous? Possibly a plainer reading of the text reveals a man acting violently and checking before hand that no one will catch him. 

For me, Moshe's violent reaction, whilst unsettling, also reveals reassuring flaws in this great man who will become the leader of the Jewish people. I think Moshe's first reaction to the injustice he encournters is one of shock, rage and ultimately murderous violence. I don't think we can excuse it, yet we may be able to learn something about how we can all react and respond to the injustice we discover around us. Maybe because of my own self-awareness and aspirartions to be a leader and an activist, I am comforted by the idea that great people such as Moshe are not angels but complex, flawed and sometimes their passion overspills into violence. 

The hebrew text may offer some hints to guide us. For most of the text when Moshe sees something the word  וַיַּרְא is usedBut when confronted with the wicked Egyptian task master beating the Hebrew slave, Moshe looks this way and that way and is faced/facing the unjust surroundings he finds himself in for the first time - He comes face to face with the harsh reality of slavery. [The word used is וַיִּפֶן - sharing the P and N of face פנים or to face that which is before you לפני.]

If we imagine that this man of privallege in Egypt is coming face to face with this harsh reality for the first time, we may have some sypamthy for the violent shock he exepriences and comprehend, but not excuse, the violent nature of Moshe's reaction. 

Furthermore, the Hebrew hints at what can happen once we first encounter the injustice in the reality around us. As the text moves to Moshe seeing two Hebrews fighting, again  וַיַּרְא is not used, but neither is the powerful  וַיִּפֶן facing. Instead we have a more netural word וְהִנֵּה translated as 'behold there were two Hebrews fighting...' or if we are mindful of the root it shares with הנהני (Hineini) maybe it could be read as 'presented to him were two men fighting'. Either way it contains less drama than being face-to-face.

I want to suggest that in the text, in general as we see Moshe וַיִגְדַּל - grow/develop, and in particular as he stops just seeing but is first dramatically faced with injustice and then presented with situations of conflict that need an intervention, we are witnessing the making of Moshe. Moshe distances himself from his privalleged upbringing to violently encounter injustcie, but then becomes more atuned to the situations around him that need addressing. Perhaps his first reaction would not have been so shocking, for him and us, if there was not such a stark contrast between the world he knew and the reality he encounters.  

Like Moshe we must seek to be face-to-face with the injustices around us, but unlike Moshe we must find a gradual way to raise our consciousness so that instead of violently squaring up to these injustcies (וַיִּפֶן), we are receptive to be presented with (וְהִנֵּה ) the reality of the world around us that is desperatlely in need of Tikkun. 



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