Friday, January 4, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Sh’mot 5773–Wicked, Wonderful Moral Ambiguities

You never know who is watching. That’s one rationale for acting appropriately for doing rightly, justly. For doing a mitzvah. However, we are often taught that the highest good deeds, the highest mitzvah, is one done privately, without anyone knowing. (The Rambam – Maimonides – extends this further in his hierarchy of charity when he teaches that one of the highest levels is when neither giver nor recipient know who the other is.)

Part of the problem with the “you never know who is watching” idea is that is can too easily been seen as a negative, cautionary approach. Be wary lest you be seen failing to do the right thing. Can it just as easily be framed in a positive light? Perhaps. It can certainly be viewed this when we thinking about teaching our children (or even just teaching others.) We lead by example, and when we do the right thing, it helps to reinforce the idea for others who see it.

Parashat Sh’mot presents us with an interesting contrast on being seen. Moshe looks around to be sure no one else is around, and then proceeds to kill and hide the body of the overseer. Only when Moshe learns that people know of his deed does he flee. (it’s interesting to note that our text says nothing about G”d’s awareness of Moshe’s deed. Did not the overseer’s blood cry out from the ground like that of Avel? Or was G”d willing to overlook this instance of vigilante justice? That is what it is. There’s no whitewash for it. No matter how heinous the overseer’s treatment of one of the Hebrew slaves, was it a capital offense? Did Moshe have the moral authority to be judge, jury, and executioner? Moshe’s actions don’t meet the as yet unstated lex talionis in which the punishment matches the crime – eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life – for the overseer had not killed, merely mistreated. True, it may have been habitual mistreatment - though that is only conjecture – but is it sufficient justification for Moshe’s killing him?) How would the story be different if Moshe had gotten away with slaying the overseer? Might we still be slaves to Pharaoh today? Might there have been a slave rebellion with Moshe as its leader, rather than as an agent for G”d?)

Right after killing the overseer, Moshe gets an opportunity for some sort of moral redemption. Perhaps his act of kindness is not enough of a moral equivalent to offset the killing of the overseer, but the concept of moral equivalency is a difficult one to quantify. Moshe protects the daughters of Reuel (or is it Hobab or Yitro? Will we ever get that whole name mess sorted out? Was Reuel actually the grandfather and Hobab/Yitro the father, or was Reuel the father and Yitro/Hobab a brother to Tziporah? Blast those annoying details. Keep us guessing, Torah! It may be on of your greatest gifts to us, as frustrating as it is.)

Moshe, in this instance, is a stand up guy. (Literally – the Torah says “vayakom Moshe” –  Moses got/stood up.) He drives away the shepherds and allows the seven daughters of the priest of Midian (Reuel/Hobab/Yitro/John Doe) to water their flock and return home. The daughters report this chivalrous act to their father(?) and Moshe is rewarded with an invitation and a wife! Did Reuel/Hobab/Yitro realize they were giving Tziporah to a murderer? Did Moshe ever tell the whole sorry tale to his wife, his father-in-law, his new family and friends? For that matter, did he ever tell them he was Jewish? Did he tell them he was a prince of Egypt?

Nevertheless I’ll give Moshe his due, a little bit of redemption, for his kind treatment of the seven daughters. After all, our tradition stresses this sort of kindness. In particular, kindness at wells is a particular theme. We have Eliezer reporting on Rivka’s kindness at the well as his reason for choosing her as a wife for Yitzkhak. No surprise. This was a somewhat nomadic, dessert-based culture. Well, cisterns, pits, et al were important. Water was important.

So how did Moshe get from murderer of an overseer to stand up guy at the well? Are these two sides of the same coin? Did Moshe’s passion for justice and fairness drive him to do both acts? And here we are again, back at balance. At that struggle between yetzer tov and yetzer hara – the good and evil inclinations. The line between them is not always so clear. It’s not as simple as a little angel whispering in one ear and a little devil whispering into the other ear.

Actually, we could even back up a step. How did Moshe get from murdering an Egyptian overseer, to the very next day attempting to stop to Hebrew slaves who were fighting? How can the same person who murdered the night before have such righteous indignation in seeing two of his own nation fight, and then go on to be the hero of the daughters of the priest of Midian at the well?

Clearly, despite Moshe’s having looked around to see if anyone was about, someone had witnessed his killing of the overseer. Did they choose to overlook it and not report it out of some question of moral ambiguity? Was this an early example of the bystander effect? Moshe fled when he learned that Pharaoh knew of his deed, but would he have fled if he thought his people might keep it a secret, believing his action justified?

It’s this moral ambiguity that is so difficult for us. When we factor in Moshe’s killing of the overseer into our discussions about things like gun control and capital punishment, it creates quite a quagmire. (We won’t even get into the coming teleological question of whether so many Egyptians had to die so that Judaism could come to be. We do have to wonder whether a certain amount of moral ambiguity is necessary in order for people like Moshe to accept G”d’s stern treatment of the Egyptians, even to the point of deliberately making Pharaoh more obstinate. Is it Moshe’s acceptance of moral ambiguity, or moral relativism, that enables him to be G”d’s partner in shaping Israel into a people? That’s a somewhat troubling thought.)

So perhaps moral ambiguity, moral relativism, is a necessity, particularly from a biblical point of view. As much as we like to view the Torah (or the New testament, or the Quran) as being a source of clear laws of behavior, ethics, and morality, they are in fact a morass of moral relativism and moral ambiguity. The Torah doesn’t teach us that G”d commands us to not kill, it teaches us that G”d commands us to not murder. It’s an apparently subtle difference that’s not so subtle. The rabbis worked overtime to try and clear up much of the moral relativism and moral ambiguity in our sacred texts.They had their successes and their failures in this regard. And we’re left with the resulting mess.

Here in the US we can’t even be certain what our 226-year-old Constitution means, so what chance do we have with texts as ancient as Torah? That being the case, is it not ultimately ironic how much we seek to interpret our 226-year-old Constitution by utilizing our thousands-of-years-old biblical texts?

Sorry folks. If you’re searching for moral clarity, you’ll not find it here – in Torah. Perhaps that, in itself, is the lesson. We may want to believe in moral absolutes (I know there are at least some I want to accept as absolute) but history, life, reality and experience have taught us that all morality is a bit ambiguous, and a bit relative. Moshe the murderer. Moshe the stand up guy. G”d the Creator. G”d the Destroyer. Can we have one without the other? (I vote yes, but I suspect I’ll be proven wrong in the end. At least until Moshiakh comes.)

Stephen Schwartz nailed in in “Wicked” when he has the Wizard sing:

A man's called a traitor - or liberator
A rich man's a thief - or philanthropist
Is one a crusader - or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as if they don’t exist.

(The Wizard allows himself to be called “Wonderful” even though he knows he is a complete fraud, perhaps because there there is some greater good being served.)

Can we afford to act as if moral ambiguities do not exist, that right and wrong are black and white? To paraphrase the Wizard by way of Stephen Schwartz again

Elphaba, where I'm from, we believe all sorts of things that aren't true. We call it - "Torah." *

(*-the original lyric is “history.”)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Sh'mot 5772 - Is Might Ever Right?
Sh'mot 5771 - Free Association IV
Sh'mot 5767-Logic & Metaphysics
Shemot 5766 - Free Association III
Shemot 5765-Why Us?
Shemot 5764-Unconsumed-ness
Shemot 5763 - Free Association II
Shemot 5760-Tzaz Latzav, Tzav Latzav
Shemot 5761-The Spice of Life
Shemot 5762-Little Ol' Me?


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