By Rabbi Debbie Reichmann
There is a special challenge in crafting a d’var Torah on parshat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1). It is one of the most well-known sections of the Torah; there are countless choices of topics, stories and insights to write about. This time around, I read in the parshah something very topical and very troubling. In Exodus 2:11-13, we find the story of Moses killing an Egyptian overseer who was abusing a Hebrew slave. In a cursory reading, this is Moses acting in defense of the defenseless, prioritizing justice and starting on the path to be the leader he was born to be. But, upon closer examination, his actions are those of a vigilante.
Vigilante is a fraught term right now. As a nation, we are confronted with drawing boundaries on what the parameters for self-defense, for defense of property and for defense of democracy are. Depending on which case you look at, what your political views are and what your perception of this nation is, you will have a different opinion on where those boundaries should be. I don’t know if it is comforting or not, but these questions have haunted us for eons.
In the case of Moses, he is called out on his vigilantism the very next day, when he tries to stop two Hebrews from fighting — one asks if Moses will kill them, as well. And yet, in just a few more lines of text, Moses is again interfering to save someone from violence. The narrative is clearly building a case that Moses is primarily a beacon of justice, standing up for those who are weak and in need of protection.
A midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:28) embellishes the story of the killing of the overseer by also attributing to him deceit and rape, thereby cementing the justice of his death. The rabbis of the midrash say, “And he turned this way and that (Exodus 2:12), he saw what he did to him at home and what he did to him in the field.” Meaning that Moses did not look around to see who was watching him, as one would assume from the plain meaning of the text, but was looking at what the Egyptian had done previously to merit punishment. Once it is clear to the rabbis that Moses knew that the Egyptian was truly morally corrupt, the execution could be excused.
We don’t usually have a series of actions showing a pattern of justice, we don’t usually have a midrash expounding on the wickedness of the victim and we aren’t Moses. So what is the lesson to take away from this story? Are we to be lax about taking matters into our own hands? After all, Moses didn’t ask for permission, nor did he use the judicial means at his disposal. I’d say Judaism teaches an emphatic “no.” We do not take the law into our own hands.
The Talmudic rabbis clearly favor judicial process, and in examining this story went through great pains to establish a rationale for Moses’ actions. Jewish culture, tradition and halachah all put great emphasis on legal and communal expectations. Therefore, when considering on a personal level or on a societal level where vigilantism can be permitted, we must take into account the Jewish tradition of trusting and supporting the societal mechanisms in place. Indeed, there is far more evidence that we should not support vigilantism than to the contrary.
The overarching command-ments of pikuach nefesh (valuing human life) and loving the stranger as oneself make clear that the most important lesson in Moses’ killing of the overseer is not to be the sword of justice, but to engage in introspection about our obligations to one another, to the sacredness of life and to the value of the rule of law. Even Moses would agree; after all, he gave us the law.
Rabbi Debbie Reichmann is the rabbi for the Interfaith Families Project of Washington, D.C.