Sunday, September 5, 2010

Badass #1: Exodus 2:11-12

11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Glancing this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. [source]
 I actually wrote about this passage in one of my rabbinic school essays. To quote myself:
Furthermore, Moses himself is a murderer! In fact, Rashi suggests the “Egyptian man” Moses killed [Exodus 2:12] is the same “Egyptian man” as the blasphemer’s father. And this very parsha [Emor] tells us “One law shall be exacted for you, convert and resident alike” [Leviticus 24:22]. So why is this man [who blasphemed] put to death when Moses is allowed to live?
In the movies this is the big heroic moment for Moses. It's his personal Rubicon, his burning of the bridge (which directly lead to that whole sea-parting thing).

But...badass? Not really. Especially since the next two events are Moses getting dissed by a couple street rats as an unfit leader, and Moses fleeing to the desert to hide from Pharaoh.

In my eyes, Moses is a murderer, plain and simple. Debate extenuating circumstances if you wish, but it doesn't change the facts on the face.

I wonder how the crime happened? Did Moses walk up to him and challenge him to a duel, Kung Fu movie style? Did he ninja up behind the guy and shank him from behind? Or, given that this guy was the former prince of the land, did he walk straight up to the guard, say, "Hey, I'm the prince; kneel before me," and crack him over the head with a walking staff?

Was the guard beating a defenseless elderly Hebrew to death, or was he punching a young, healthy slave in the mouth after catching him in bed with his wife?

How much "hiding in the sand" was done? Like a shallow grave? Or body parts dismembered and separated? In other words, exactly how hard did Moses try to hide his crime? How aware of and wracked by his guilt was he?

I have an idea for a show, maybe a YouTube series: a bunch of biblical stories retold as crime dramas, Law & Order style. It doesn't hurt that most of my knowledge and understanding of the criminal justice system comes from that series.

I'm imagining the prosecution working to assemble the case against Moses; what was his motive, how far in advance did he plan? Did he have help? Should we implicate this "Yaweh" person as a co-conspirator? Can't wait to see Moses take the stand in his own defense; "But I did it because God told me to!"

The funny part? He didn't. There's no evidence God told him to murder this guard, or even to save this slave. God acts throughout as if he's willing to sacrifice individual Hebrews to save the greater number of the people, "hardening Pharaoh's heart" after each plague to increase the totality of the eventual freedom, but losing more people under the increasingly harsh reactions that had to follow each plague.

Even after Egypt, "the word of God" as interpreted by the people that wrote the Torah is much more concerned with the community than the individual. Look how many crimes carry capital penalties, killing individuals that the greater society might live. So the idea that God would want Moses to endanger himself, expose himself, and make himself known to Pharaoh by killing one guard to save one Hebrew - an action that actually weakens Moses's position as leader - is ludicrous. Moses acts by himself, for himself. We never even see him check on this slave afterward, making this a form of "White Guilt"; we'll save you from cruel overseers, but don't really care what happens next.

What really bothers me about this particular story, though, is that through inclusion in the Torah it is law. It is part of God's word, which is inherently perfect, and therefore this story, and the actions of its characters, must also be perfect and divinely ordained.

What follows from this idea is books of commentary based on the idea, "Given that we know Moses would never do anything wrong, here's how we explain this story as a good and noble act on Moses's part."

This philosophy bothers me, for many, many reasons. For now, though, I'll limit it to this: people are not perfect. If the Torah is perfect, it makes it that much harder for us, as imperfect vessels, to understand it. A Torah we can relate to is one that has more meaning, value, and utility for us in our everyday lives (ie, the parts of life outside of Sunday School).

Imagine a Moses that we allowed to be a flawed leader. Imagine getting to talk to that Moses. "You think you've screwed up," he'd say, "Let me tell you what happened my first day back from the desert. And don't even get me started on the kinky shit my wife is into. I'm all for women acting in the "Egyptian fashion", but I haven't got a clue which magazines she got these ideas from!"

That's a spiritual leader I'd want to "study some Torah" with!

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