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Shemot: Divine Justice Is Perfect

Published on Thursday February 4th, 2021

The Parsha describes Moshe Rabbeinu’s actions in defending the Jews from the oppression of the Egyptians.  He sees an Egyptian man beating a Jewish man and kills him: "And it was in those days that Moshe grew up and he went out to his brethren and saw their suffering.  He saw an Egyptian man strike a Hebrew from amongst his brethren. He turned this way and that way and he saw that there was no man, so he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”[1]  The simple understanding of this incident is, that after seeing the Egyptian’s actions Moshe looked around to see if there were any onlookers, and when he saw that there were none, he killed the Egyptian.  Rashi explains that Moshe was looking at something much deeper; “He saw that no future man would descend from him [the Egyptian] in the future, who would convert.”[2]  Rashi further adds that Moshe did not kill the Egyptian in an orthodox fashion, rather he used the shem hamefurash(holy name) to kill him.[3]

Two questions arise from Rashi’s explanations; Firstly, why did Moshe choose to kill the Egyptian with the shem hamefurash?  Secondly, the commentaries[4]write that Moshe made a legal ruling on what the Egyptian was doing, and he ruled that the Egyptian was punishable by death. They point out that when punishing sinners, the Beis Din (Jewish law court) does not take into account any consequences of the punishment, such as how it would affect other people, including whether the sinner would have any righteous descendants[5].  Accordingly, why did Moshe need to assess the future descendants of this man?!  

The Maharil Diskin answers that the sin the Egyptian was committing was one that was only punishable by death bidei Shamayim (in the hands of Heaven), but not bidei Adam (in the hands of man)[6]. Therefore, Moshe could not punish him by physically killing him, rather he needed to utilize a method that would require Heavenly assistance; accordingly, he killed him using the shem hamefurash. There is a fundamental difference between how punishments that are bidei Shamayim are determined and how those that are bidei Adam are enforced.  As we said above, when Beis Din punishes someone they do not take into account all the possible ramifications of the punishment, such as how it will affect the sinner’s family, friends and his future descendants.  However, when HaShem sends the punishment He takes into account all the myriad effects of the retribution. Included amongst these considerations is how this punishment will affect the future descendants. For example, if one is punishable by death bidei Shamayim but righteous descendants are destined to come from him, then HaShem may alter the punishment so as not to prevent they are coming into existence.  Since Moshe was using this form of punishment he had to take into consideration such factors as the future offspring of the Egyptian.

This explanation brings to light the difference between Heavenly retribution and human punishment.  Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l discusses this concept at length.[7]  He quotes the verse in Tehillim: “The judgments of HaShem are true, they are correct together.”[8]  What does it mean that they are correct together?  He explains that when human courts mete out punishments they only take into the account the sinner, but ignore his family and friends.  This is unavoidable since a human judge cannot begin to be able to take such factors into account. However, HaShem, in His Infinite wisdom knows exactly how the punishment will affect everyone involved, and passes judgment accordingly.  Thus, His judgments are; ”correct together” in that they take into account all the people together who stand to be affected by the punishment. In this vein, Rav Shmuelevitz discusses a number of examples in Tanach and in Chazal, where one’s wife is punished because of the sin of the husband.  This does not seem fair, but he explains that the one who suffers is certainly being punished for a previous transgression. However, up to this point, HaShem spared her because her husband did not deserve to endure the pain of losing her. Yet, once he sins and is not worthy of this special treatment, then she is no longer protected from her transgression.[9]

We have seen from the Maharil Diskin’s explanation of Moshe’s punishment of the Egyptian, and Rav Shmuelevitz’ discussion of HaShem’s justice, that it is perfectly measured for all the people connected to the person being punished. One key lesson that can be learned from this principle is that tragedies or challenges are not only for the sake of the person most directly involved: Many people understand that when some type of challenge happens to them, that HaShem is somehow communicating with them and they react by trying to improve their deeds.  However, the same attitude should be applied when suffering does not inflict the person himself, rather his family or friends, or members of his community. The closer the person is to the one in pain, the more powerful the communication from HaShem. Therefore, it is essential that the person try to view his family member or friend’s suffering as HaShem communicating with him. In this vein, Rav Yissachar Frand shlita, says that when tragedies afflict a community, it is insufficient to merely recite a chapter of Tehillim but otherwise continue our life as if nothing changed.  Rather, we should undergo serious contemplation of why this event took place, and how HaShem wants us to grow from it. It is often impossible to exactly know what HaShem is telling us, however, the main point is that we see this as HaShem directly communicating to us and we try to change our ways in some form.



[1]Shemos, 2:11-12.

[2]Rashi, Shemos, 2:12.

[3]Rashi, Shemos, 2:14.

[4]See Maharil Diskin and Taam V’Daas on these passukim.

[5]Obviously it is in not in their capability to determine this, but it is clear that even it were, they would still not take that into account when determining the punishment.

[6]There are various sins for which Beis Din has power to punish the transgressers – these are known as being punishable bidei adam.  However, there are other sins for which Beis Din is not authorized to punish, yet they deserve some kind of punishment.  In such cases, HaShem sends the punishment through Divine Providence – these are known as being punishablebidei Shamayim.

[7]Sichos Mussar, Maamer 98, ‘Mishpetei HaSHem’, p.414.

[8]Tehillim, 19:10.

[9]See Sanhedrin, 22a, Rashi, Yoel, 2:13.  

Rabbi Yehonasan GEFEN - © Torah-Box Account

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