The sedra for this week (Bo) features one of the most troubling episodes in all of Torah: the so-called despoiling of the Egyptians. Back in Exodus 3, the Israelites are promised that they will leave Egypt not just with their freedom but with great wealth. “You shall strip the Egyptians bare,” goes the promise, in colloquial English of today.
Sure enough, this week the Israelites prepare to leave by “borrowing” objects of silver and gold from their neighbors. Borrowing? Not exactly. Everybody knows, that they are leaving Egypt for good with no intention of returning. The Egyptians comply because “God disposed them favorably” toward their erstwhile Jewish slaves (verse 11:3). How so? They repented of the evil they had done as slave masters, says Ramban. But let’s face it: it didn’t hurt any that the Egyptians were frightened to death by the plagues.
This is a significant moral dilemma. When the Egyptians had the upper hand, they impoverished the Jews. Now that the tables are turned, should the Jews then impoverish the Egyptians? Ibn Ezra dismisses the whole issue by insisting that God who owns the entire world can rightfully allot it to whomever He wishes. End of story. But most commentators cannot buy that. Surely God is subject to the same moral law as that which binds human beings.
So commentators try to get the Israelites off the moral hook by observing that the Israelites “borrowed” the Egyptians’ goods only at Moses’ insistence. They were not looters, that is, not a mob intent on extortion. The Israelites requested their neighbors possessions against their own will, actually – purely because Moses commanded them to do so.
Still, what moral rationale could Moses have had? Following the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a), most commentators decide that Moses was only claiming the wages owed from years of unpaid slavery. This was not vengeance; it was justice. Ethical law prohibits an underclass from using its sudden turn of fortune to rob former masters. But Moses (a prophet, after all) imposed a higher order of moral logic than what ethical law permits.
Ever the philosopher and legalist, Maimonides thinks through the consequences of this position. In his code (Hilkhot Y’sodei Torah, Chapter 9) he comes to the astonishing conclusion that “someone who is known to be a prophet” may temporarily override the laws of Torah. But think about it: are we really ready to permit our leaders, even temporarily, to override morality? They would have to be recognized prophets of course but how can we know for sure that someone is a prophet?
Maimonides’ prime example — Elijah who offers a sacrifice on Mount Carmel despite the Torah’s mandate to do so only in Jerusalem — is talmudic (Yeb 90b). But Elijah’s case is different. Whatever he did, he did himself. Convinced of an emergency situation, he acted on his own — he did not induce others to sacrifice outside the Temple. And the rule of Torah that he dismissed was not a moral one. It impacted God, perhaps, but not other human beings.
The case of Moses is more difficult because Moses instructed others to disobey a precept and because the precept in question was moral. Can just anyone, then, be a modern-day Moses?
That frightening possibility may underlie Maimonides’ insistence that Moses was utterly unique. The Torah concludes by observing that no prophet has ever arisen like Moses, and Maimonides raises that observation to the status of being one of his 13 principles of faith. In principle, then, a prophet may instruct others to countermand basic moral logic. In practice, however, we are wary of anyone who tries to do so. No one, after all, is like Moses.
The logic attributed to Moses is not wrong: considerations of justice should (and do) guide our thinking about compensation for slaves – – that has been our position regarding the Sho’ah. But we arrive at that conclusion by going through the institution of law, not by going around it.
In the end, the Torah is not in heaven, Maimonides reminds us. It remains the responsibility of human beings to interpret it. But interpretation is the very stuff of law not its dismissal. In the era before Sinai, Moses was the singular embodiment of legal interpretation. He had the right, therefore, to instruct the Israelites to take what was properly theirs. But no one has arisen like Moses, and we are beyond him now.
The sure sign of civilization, Judaism insists, is the rule of law. Societies stand or fall on the balance of justice and mercy with which their understanding of law operates. We insist as well on morality but entrust it to the complexity of such properly functioning legal systems.