Thursday, January 15, 2009


A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

Join us for a year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I will pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.

January 15, 2009

This past Saturday evening, just as the sun was setting, I was walking outside a local synagogue and saw a ten year old boy hit a younger girl. Both were still in their ‘Sabbath Best’ – he in black pants, black velvet kipa and white shirt – she, crying, in a white dress and a big white bow in her hair. He punched her in the stomach. A few feet away, inside the synagogue courtyard, older girls, clutching prayer books, were praying loudly. One of them yelled at the boy from afar ‘Just you wait till I’m done!’ The boy dismissed her and kept on hitting: ‘I’m not afraid of girls!’

I stopped and took a step towards them and just stood there staring. He looked at me, and I said to him, as calmly as I could manage: ‘why are you hitting her? Would you like it if someone bigger than you hit you?’ He hesitated for a second, the girl used the time and ran away, entering the synagogue, and he then yelled at me in anger: ‘Go away! It’s none of your business!’ and off he ran also. And that was that. I walked on and didn’t think more about this incident until the next morning when I sat to read the weekly Torah portion that kicks off the Exodus, and search for a verb that will reverberate with my life. And there was Moses, thrust into a brawl:
Exodus 2:13 And he went out the second day, and, behold, two men of the Hebrews were fighting together; and Moses spoke to the evil one: 'Why do you hit your friend?'

Interestingly, this is the first ‘official’ conversation that Moses, the Egyptian Prince, has had with a fellow Hebrew. These are also the first words we hear from his mouth – his first speech, and it will change his life. The guy he accused of hitting turns on him: “it’s none of your business” and reminds Moses of the previous time he got involved in a fight - and killed the Egyptian soldier. Moses, whose anger management issues have gone public, runs away from Egypt, thus beginning his illustrious career as one who speaks to power on behalf of the oppressed.

“And Moses spoke”: the voice of moral truth and obligation emerges from surprising sources: an Egyptian prince, a stranger on the street, a random op-ed. But sometimes, like now, amid the violence – the brawl-in-process - the multitude of voices drowns the conversation, truth and morality tossed into the mix with survival, rage, and horror.

In later stages of his career Moses would become a wise and powerful world leader, using a magic wand to inflict a bio-mythic campaign for freedom upon Egypt. But at this early stage of his leadership, just taking his first steps out of the palace and into reality, Moses is still rehearsing his strategies. His first attempt at justice is purely physical and spontaneous – he kills the oppressor, burying the dead Egyptian soldier in the sand and covering up his act (Ex. 2:12). By the second time he intervenes to prevent violence he learns how to speak up.

The first words that Moses speaks in the Bible are perhaps the most important: “why do you hit your friend?” (Others translate: “strike your fellow”)

If the voice of Moses was to be heard today as it was heard during that time when he interfered with a fight – if he were to speak up about the Arab-Israeli conflict, as it is currently center stage in Gaza – what would he speak? And to whom? Who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor?

Who is the modern Moses? Can that voice of moral indignation even be heard now? Can it help?
I don’t know if the little girl with the white bow in her hair did something to provoke the rage of the older boy, maybe her brother. And even if she did, the violence in his eyes was too terrible. It doesn’t matter anymore who started; the violence has to be stopped, and the speaking has to happen. Speaking, like Moses - between one and another, fellows, friends, enemies – and the speaking up to powers, all of them, in defiance of the violence, demanding to know, speaking the words of the prophet: ‘why do you hit your fellow human being?’


  1. Dear Amichai,
    Thank you. I read your weekly posts and am always deeply affected by your words. This one was no exception.
    Shabbat Shalom from Los Angeles.
    Enid Sperber (Temple Israel of Hollywood)

  2. I recognize the progression you point out here. First, reacting violently against violence. Then recognizing the futility in that--with accompanying feelings of frustration,impotence and guilt. Finally trying to do with words what violent response couldn't accomplish. Ending with a question. The current violence in Gaza makes me want to scramble to learn more and more---as if by that I will somehow learn the truth of this situation and find the right words to unlock this Gordion knot. Still looking for the right questions and who to put them to.

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