And he said, “Who placed you as a judge and ruler above us. Will you say to kill us as you killed the Egyptian?” And Moshe feared, and he said, “Now the matter is known” – Shemos 2:14
When Moshe came of age, he went out to visit his brothers, to share in their suffering. What he saw caused him great anguish. The oppression, subjugation, and cruelty were present wherever he looked. The next day, Moshe again “went out to his brothers” and this time he witnessed two Jews engaged in mortal combat. One was standing over the other in an attempt to kill him. Moshe called out, “Wicked one, why are you hitting your friend?” This put an end to the bloodshed.
However, Moshe’s intervention wasn’t appreciated. Quite the opposite. Their response was, “Who appointed you to be a judge over us? Are you going to kill us as you killed the Mitzri yesterday?”
The Midrash tells us this was actually a threat. The day before Moshe had killed a Mitzri guard, who was mercilessly whipping an innocent Jew. The two Jews who were fighting had seen this, and they now warned Moshe that they were going to report him to the authorities for rebelling against the king – which they did.
When Pharaoh heard that the heir apparent had openly challenged the law of the land and defended a Jew against his master, he brought Moshe to trial. In the end, Moshe had to flee Mitzraim.
Interestingly, when Moshe first heard their threat his response was, “Now the matter is known.” Rashi explains that for many years Moshe had a question: “Why is it that of all the seventy nations, the Jews are singled out for oppression?” Once he saw there were talebearers among the Jews, he understood why this nation was so fated.
This Rashi is very difficult to understand for a number of reasons: 1. Moshe witnessed two people threatening to report him. Two individuals don’t define a nation. 2. Didn’t all the other nations speak lashon hara as well? 3. Even if it were true all Jews people were gossipers, what is so egregious about this sin that an entire nation should suffer cruel, brutal subjugation?
The answer to this can best be understood with a mashol.
Making a Hole In My Cabin
Imagine a man boards a transatlantic ocean liner carrying an electric saw. Late at night, one of the ship’s personnel hears a distinct rattling noise coming from the man’s cabin. The crew member knocks on the door – no answer. The noise continues. He knocks again. Still no response. Fearing danger, he kicks in the door, only to see the passenger standing poised against the ship’s hull, electric saw in hand, attempting to cut through the skin of the ship. The crew member screams out, “Stop it! What are you doing?”
The passenger calmly responds, “Sir, do you see this boarding pass in my hand? Do you see that it states that I have the right to a private cabin? Why are you disturbing me? Here I am, in the privacy of my own compartment, doing what I want. If I want to drill a hole in my room, that is my choice. I have paid for this cabin and I have the prerogative to do whatever I want here. Leave me alone.”
The Chofetz Chaim compares this situation to the Jewish people. He explains that our nation is one unit – irrevocably tied together in a common fate. What happens to one affects another. The state of each individual impacts the whole. There is no such concept as one person doing what he wants in the privacy of his home and not affecting the klal. But more than this, we are one body. Where the tail goes, the head can’t be far behind. When Moshe saw the levels the tail had sunk to, he knew the body of the nation couldn’t be that high. This single action shed light onto the madregah of the people.