Each Life is a Novel (Parashat Shemot)

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. The book of Exodus deals primarily with the birth of the Jewish nation, how they go from the degradation of slavery to the messiness of freedom. In these early chapters, the seeds for future struggles and successes will be sown. Kernels of faith, questioning, contention, and contest are all present in the text.

Early on in the book, a nameless death occurs and though this death is often overlooked, its implications for future Jewish stability are quickly magnified through the generations. One day, long before he becomes the savior of the Jewish people, Moses is out for a walk in Egypt. As the Torah explain, Moses is going “out to his kinsfolk and witnessing their labors” (Exodus 2:11).  Soon, Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. The text continues, “He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Ex 2:12). Soon Pharaoh learns of Moses act of violence, and Moses is forced to flee to Midian.

What I love about our ancient Rabbis is that they understand that people are not props. Though the Egyptian taskmaster who Moses killed was little more than a literary convention meant to move the plot forward, they imagine a number of backstories for him.

In one (Pirke D’rebbe Eliezer 48) this taskmaster was the true incarnation of evil. Known for taking advantage of women on their wedding night he famously killed a woman's husband, abused her, and impregnated her. The next day he is murdered by Moses.

Here, Moses’s actions were justified. He wasn’t just avenging a beaten slave but was destroying a truly evil presence in the Israelites' midst. If he deserves punishment his death is excusable and Moses’s sin is naught.

In another account of his history (Exodus Rabbah 1:28) our Rabbis teach:

The taskmasters were Egyptians but the officers were Israelites, one taskmaster being appointed over ten officers and one officer over ten Israelites. The taskmasters used to go to the officers’ house early in the morning to drag them out to work at a cock-crow. Once an Egyptian taskmaster went to a Jewish officer and set eyes upon his wife who was beautiful without blemish. He waited for cock-crow, when he dragged the officer out of his house and then returned to lie down with the woman who thought that it was her husband, with the result that she became pregnant from him. When her husband returned, he discovered the Egyptian emerging from his house. He then asked her: ‘Did he touch you?’ She replied: ‘Yes, for I thought it was you.’ When the taskmaster realized that he was caught, he made him go back to his hard labor, smiting him and trying to slay him.

Moses happened upon the taskmaster as he was abusing the officer and while he was trying to cover up his crime. Moses’ act was warranted. He was involved in saving the life of an innocent man.

Though there are other rabbinic accounts that paint the taskmaster in a somewhat more sympathetic light, most leave us with a feeling that Moses did a good thing by killing him. True evil deserves destruction and Moses is only helping to rid the world of its worst vileness.

However, while literature may have plot devices, there is no such thing as a flat character in the real world. Everyone has a story. Everyone matters to someone.

A generation later, the murder of the taskmaster would come back to haunt Moses. While wandering in the desert after their exodus from Egypt, a character known only by the epithet “the blasphemer” curses God. We do not know the exact nature of the curse, only that it is highly offensive. Not knowing what to do, Moses approaches God to receive instruction; God tells him to take the man outside of the camp and stone him to death in front of the whole community. Blasphemy will not be tolerated, and this man will become an example.

On the surface, the man’s sin is easily understood. Someone loses control and becomes angry at heaven, upsetting the cosmos. He does the unspeakable and receives punishment. Yet, a closer look at the blasphemer’s story yields a very different tale. Although we don’t know his name, the Torah tells us the name of one of his parents. The blasphemer’s mother is Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri the Dannite, and it is through these relationships that we learn a piece of his story.

It turns out that this blasphemer was the illicit son of the taskmaster from early in the book of Exodus, conceived on the eve of his father’s death. Because of his questionable parentage, he was an outcast in society. There is a famous story about the hours leading up to blasphemer’s outburst (Leviticus Rabbah 32:2). Because his status is ambiguous— he is only half-Israelite—and because the Israelites pitch their tents with their father’s tribe, he has no natural home. His mother’s tribe of Dan does not see him as equal. His father is not one of them. He is tribe-less; he has no place. He takes them to court, but it is to no avail (Sifra 14:1–2). Moses does not accept him and even labels him as a mamzer, a term connoting a person who can never fully enter Israelite society.

The taskmaster’s murder teaches us an important lesson about the people we meet. Everyone has someone who is impacted by their actions, even a generation later. While literature may be filled with flat characters, life has none. Everyone is someone’s son or father, friend or brother. It didn’t matter to Moses that he killed that taskmaster, but it mattered to the man’s child. Even the most vile characters have someone who loves and needs them. The story of the taskmaster reminds us not to forget that everyone has a story worthy of their own novel.