Shabbat Shemot 5783

When we first meet Moshe as a grownup, we are introduced to a man of action. He goes out, ostensibly from his sheltered life in the palace, among his People. He sees an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew. “He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12).
We might judge Moshe’s behavior as impulsive, but we should also take note of his initial action in the verse: “He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about…” What does this mean? In its plainest sense, the narrative is telling us that Moshe made sure there would be no witnesses to his crime. He confirmed that the coast was clear. Then, “seeing no one about,” he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.
But I’m struck by the commentary of Rabbi Ya’akov Zvi Mecklenburg, the 19th-century German author of HaKetav veHaKabbalah. He explains Moshe’s looking around this way: “Moshe thought that one of his Hebrew brothers standing nearby would confront the Egyptian and rescue his brother who was being beaten to death.” And on “seeing no one about,” Mecklenburg wrote: “He saw that there was no one of courage; not one of them took his brother’s suffering to heart enough to try to save him.”
Whereas the first reading might incline us to find Moshe guilty of premeditated murder, Mecklenburg’s interpretation implicates the many witnesses to the beating that was taking place. These two conflicting interpretations capture the diverse attitudes we have to activism, and raises this question: how much are we willing to risk when we claim to want to combat injustice?
On Shabbat morning, with the recent Yahrzeit and upcoming birthday of two of America’s most famous activists in mind, I’ll pose some similar questions about our story of Moshe’s actions and the inaction of others.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise
Candle lighting: 4:31 PM
Torah Reading: Exodus 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23