Shemos: From Vigilante to Lawgiver

A post on Facebook by Jeremy Phillips raised the question of why Hashem chose a vigilante to be His lawgiver. He got me thinking.

Hashem even lauds Moshe’s vigilantism in the Torah when he leaps to the defense of the Jewish slave being beaten by the Egyptian, tries to break up the fight between Jewish troublemakers, and helping Yisro’s daughters when they were taunted at the well.

We would naturally associate vigilantism with a raw morality that is unbridled, lawless. A pursuit of fairness at the expense of law.

So why does this week’s parashah, Shemos, spend so much space telling us that Moshe Rabbeinu, the ultimate teacher of the law, was a vigilante?

In Widen (sec. 2.2) I touch on the relationship between Natural Morality and Halakhah. We had already seen the relationship in one direction, in Hillel’s summary of the Torah to the prospective convert, “That which you loathe, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. Now go study!”

But I believe the relationship also exists in the other direction. In the famous Achnai Oven story, Rabbi Eliezer believed the oven’s pieces were not attached sufficiently for it to quality as a utensil, and thus not subject to the laws of tum’ah. The majority held it was. Rabbi Eliezer brought proofs from miracles, even was confirmed by a Bas Qol, an Echo from Heaven. Rabbi Yehoshua rebutted by quoting the verse, “lo bashamyim hi — it [the Torah] is not in heaven”. (Bava Metzi’a 59b, quoting Devarim 30:11)

The halakhah must be decided by humans, not by angels. Why? For that I would look to the end of the text Rabbi Yehoshua quoted. After listing distant things to contrast the Torah in various ways, the Torah concludes (v. 14) “ki qarov eilekha hadavar me’od, befikha uvilvavekah, la’asoso — for the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and heart, to perform it.”

Why must the halakhah only be decided by people? Because it is an expression of what is already in our mouths and hearts. Halakhah must come from the natural morality of “that which you loathe, do not do to another” or else it is not Torah.

Torah isn’t some pristine set of rules, coming from heaven and detached from human nature. Torah is a means of better living the moral calling planted in the human soul during its creation. Teaching us how to refine ourselves to be better at our calling. Correcting us when our perspective is overly short-sighted.

And I think that message is also heard here, in this week’s parashah. Moshe was uniquely qualified to be the lawgiver, the first teacher of Torah, because he was a vigilante. Because he was so driven by his natural moral calling. A vigilante must submit to halakhah. (Although maybe I will have more to say about this come parashas Pinechas.) In the laws of Shema and of geirus, we call it “qabbalas ol mitzvos — accepting the yoke of mitzvos“. A yoke takes an animal’s existing energy and harnesses it for work.

A vigilante, as Moshe starts his career being, has the correct energy flowing, the force that the Torah is there to further develop and harness.

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  1. January 10, 2024 – כ״ט בטבת תשפ״ד

    […] “Shemos: Vigilante to Lawgiver” I suggested that Moshe’s natural instinct to stand up for someone in need was a […]

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