Shmot: Whose Morality?

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 5 months ago

      In 2012, recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado. Within a few years, many other states followed suit; marijuana is now fully legal in 19 states (including DC), and decriminalized in 13 others. This process, of course, did not start in 2012: marijuana was first decriminalized by a court decision in Alaska, for example, in 1975, and remained that way for 15 years until 1990, when voters passed a measure to recriminalize it (and then passed a measure to “redecriminalize” it in 2015). While many are opposed to marijuana due to its effects on health and behavior, by the 2000s, many saw marijuana as a moral issue precisely because it was almost universally illegal. In the last decade, it has been very interesting to watch the mental calisthenics these people have had to perform to adjust to the fact that the drug has been legalized, and therefore, in their view, should now be morally acceptable. In some states, those who are over 50 years old have had to reorient their righteous indignation many times now.

      While the name of this week’s parashah translates as “names,” hardly anybody’s name is actually mentioned in the first section: it begins with an enumeration and discussion of Yaakov’s sons[1], and there are no more names mentioned until Moshe is named[2]—with one exception. Two midwives, Shifrah and Puah, are mentioned by name[3]. Why them?

      One way to understand that requires us to consider a separate pair of episodes in the parashah. In the first, Moshe goes out, sees an Egyptian beating a Jew[4], checks whether anyone is looking, kills the Egyptian and buries him[5]. There is no comment about whether the Jew expresses any gratitude.

      The Torah immediately moves on to a later episode, when Moshe finds two Jews fighting and asks one Jew why he would beat the other[6]. The answer is, roughly: “Who put you in charge? Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”[7] And in the very same verse, Moshe is frightened and comments on the issue being known.

      Of course, if Moshe truly checked whether anybody was looking (and the verse asserts that he did), there is only one person who could have reported him: the Jew he saved[8]. And that is good reason to be frightened: that Jew knows that making the incident known is likely a death sentence for Moshe[9]. If the Jews are at a point where they view their Egyptian oppressor as moral[10], where the order of things is established and comfortable for them, where they will defend their oppressors, even turning in those who help them against said oppressors; then that is absolutely terrifying, and could have raised for Moshe a significant question about whether he wants to be associated with such a people—and indeed he runs away, marries a non-Jewish woman, and seems to have no plans to return until God orders him to—as well as a significant question about whether such a people deserves to be led out of their oppression—and indeed, some meforshim, including Rav Yehudah Leon Ashkenazi, associate Moshe’s desperate-sounding attempts to decline the mission precisely with such a feeling.

      This is not very different in our times: there are some legitimate reasons to dislike Ted Cruz’s political stances, for example, but how many Americans vilified him specifically when he made it part of his platform to abolish the IRS? If a civilian hacked and paralyzed the IRS, allowing Americans to keep their income that year, how many would willingly turn him in to face a life sentence under pretexts like “it’s what makes our country run”? Over and over again, history demonstrates the willingness of people to look to those pointing guns at them for their moral instruction, thereby losing their identity and becoming cogs in the machinery of government.

      And this brings us back to Shifrah and Puah[11]. Is it any coincidence that these women stand up in the face of government orders, and then lie to the government? Their morality is not dependent on that day’s whim of their overlord. They hold their place like boulders in a river. And so they have identities; they remain people, and people have names.

      Every morning, before saying any words of Torah, we say “אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים ונתן לנו את תורתו”—He chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah. We have a law above the law of men to follow. Looking at it, we know when to follow the laws of men, and when to violate them. Our laws do not change; there is no need to do mental calisthenics every few decades—not with marijuana or anything else. This allows us to be ישרים—straight. It is a far less confusing, far more consistent way to live life—and the only way that is truly moral. And that is something for which to be deeply grateful.

      [1] Shmot 1:1-6
      [2] ibid. 2:10
      [3] 1:15
      [4] We use the somewhat anachronistic term “Jew” throughout to refer to an Israelite; it makes the language less burdensome. The word “Jew,” which etymologically refers only to members of the tribe of Yehudah, is a word with a great amount of history, and we omit the many pages of caveats to which this could lead if we were to be entirely precise.
      [5] 2:12
      [6] v. 13
      [7] v. 14
      [8] Shmot Rabbah 1:28 suggests that the Jew being beaten by the Egyptian was Datan, and Rashi on v. 13 suggests that the two quarreling Jews are Datan and Aviram; taken literally, that certainly helps our narrative—it makes explicit that Datan, the rescued Jew, has no appreciation for the help that was rendered. But even if this midrash is not to be taken literally, our point stands comfortably from the pshat.
      [9] Imagine today if a police officer is killed. Nobody except you knows who did it. Then imagine that you start telling people.
      [10] While we do not see Jews standing up to Egyptians generally, as soon as Moshe does so, we see a Jew stand up to him. The Egyptian system is seen as fully legitimate, but Moshe, trying to bring morality into the picture, is immediately “called out” for a “crime,” and one of those judging him for it is the very person he saved.
      [11] Rashi claims that these are not their real names, and that Shifrah is actually Yocheved: no matter—they are named; and if we are to interpret according to this midrash, Yocheved is named here and not when she gives birth to Moshe.

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