“By What Right Does Moses Kill The Egyptian?

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we learn that Moses, who was raised in the royal house of Pharaoh, regards the Jewish people, rather than the Egyptians, as his brethren. His concern for his people is so great that when Moses grows up, he goes out to observe his brethren and to see their burdens.

The Torah, in Exodus 2:11-12 relates, וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו. וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ,  וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי, וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל, And he [Moses] saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brethren. He turned this way and that and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

The intensity of Moses’ Jewish identity is instantly apparent. After all, why should Moses, the noble “Egyptian prince,” regard the Hebrews as his brethren, and not be satisfied with the comfort and security of Pharaoh’s court? His interest in the Israelites’ suffering is absolutely baffling. While some sensitive people might set aside funds to aid those whose lives are in danger, few would personally intervene, and surely not at the risk of one’s own life.

The emphasis on אֶחָיו “eh’chav,” his brothers, is not coincidental. First, the Torah states, וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, that Moses went out to his brothers. When Moses sees an Egyptian man striking another, the victim is described not only as a Hebrew but as, אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו, a Hebrew man of his brothers. Moses clearly feels a very special kinship for the Israelites.

The commentators, however, are perplexed by Moses’ extremely aggressive response to the confrontation, and ask: Upon what authority does Moses take the life of the Egyptian? One might assume that since the Egyptian is trying to kill the Hebrew, he falls into the legal category of רוֹדֵף, a pursuer. However, the text only says, מַכֶּה, that the Egyptian was “striking” the Israelite. Can it be known for certain that the Egyptian sought to kill the Israelite, and that the blows were intended to be lethal?

Rashi, explains Moses’ intense reaction to the confrontation by adding context to the scene. He cites the Midrash in Shemot Rabbah, which relates that the Egyptian taskmaster was beating the husband of Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri.

The Midrash maintains that the Egyptian taskmaster had cast his eye upon the Hebrew woman because of her beauty, and wanted to seduce her. The taskmaster therefore awakened her husband in the middle of the night to remove him from the house. With her husband now out, the Egyptian soon returned and had relations with Shlomit bat Dibri, she thinking that he was her husband.

When the husband returned and realized what had occurred, the Egyptian began striking and intimidating the poor Hebrew throughout the day. Rashi’s commentators note that the use of the present tense, מַכֶּה, hitting, rather than the past tense, הִכָּה, indicates that Moses witnessed a series of events that took place over a period of time, and not just a single blow.

If we assume that the Midrash is correct and that the Egyptian had violated the Hebrew woman, that act alone would constitute as a violation of one of the seven Noahide principles, justifying the Egyptian’s death.

The Malbim offers several justifications for Moses’ actions. The Malbim points out that this was not a precipitous act on the part of the Egyptian, but rather a well thought-out and premeditated act. He cites the Talmud in Sanhedrin 58a, which states that a gentile who strikes an Israelite has committed a capital crime. The Malbim also quotes Maimonides who states (Laws of Kings, 10:6) that although the Egyptian was deserving of death, he was put to death at the hands of G-d. This opinion is supported by another Midrash maintaining that Moses killed the Egyptian not with his hands, but with the pronouncement of the Divine Name, confirming that the Al-mighty agreed with the punishment. The Midrash also states that when Moses looked around and saw, כִּי אֵין אִישׁ, that there were no men, it means no “men” literally, implying that the angels had been consulted and had declared the Egyptian guilty.

B.S. Jacobson quotes Netziv, who derives from the context that the Egyptian was deserving of death because the Israelite was not being beaten for laziness or any deficiency with his work, but merely for the fact of being a Hebrew. That is why the verse in Exodus 2:12, states, “One of his own brethren.”

The Netziv therefore understands this verse as confirming that Moses turned this way and that in order to complain to the proper Egyptian authorities about the corrupt taskmaster and to appeal for justice. But, when Moses saw that there was “no man who was man enough to consider basic and inalienable human rights, and that all the Egyptians conspired against his brethren only to torture them, he smote the Egyptian, as he saw no other means to dispense justice like a man.”

Rabbi Jacobson also quotes Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, who maintained that Moses was not looking for Egyptian authorities to stop the attack, but was rather waiting for a Jew to come to his brother’s rescue. Rabbi Mecklenburg insists, “Seeing great injustice done to a defenseless slave, Moses thought that surely one of the Hebrew brethren would rise and fall upon the Egyptian taskmaster to rescue his beaten brother–-and he saw that there was no man–-he understood that none of his brethren was man enough, all were so demoralized and callous as to not care what happened to others or wanting to protect them.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov suggests that Moses expected all the Jews to resist. After all, for every Egyptian taskmaster there were ten Hebrew officers and for every Jewish officer, there were ten Israelites. Given the sheer numbers, the Israelites could have successfully resisted.

Alas, there was no resistance, and Moses had to take matters into his own hands.

May you be blessed.