How (Not) to Show Up
Moses hasn't yet learned to be either ally or accomplice
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Moses, like all the Israelite boys of his generation living in Egypt, was targeted by the genocidal decree of a tyrant who had enslaved his people. Unlike most of them, however, he was rescued by the daughter of that very tyrant, and raised in the palace, in safety and luxury.
One day, however, when he was grown,
“he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their suffering. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk.” (Exodus 2:11)
He went out of his place of comfort and privilege, out to meet those who were oppressed, out to his people, and he bore witness to what was happening to them.
Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, summarizing midrash, teaches that the phrase “he witnessed their suffering” means that “he set his eyes and mind to share in their distress.” (Rashi on Exodus 2:11, referencing Exodus Rabbah 1:27)
The beating was shocking to him; even as the verse underscores his connection to the enslaved Israelites, he seems to have had no idea what their lives were really like.
Ursula Le Guin wrote,
“The shift from denial of injustice to recognition of injustice can’t be unmade. What your eyes have seen they have seen. Once you see the injustice, you can never again in good faith deny the oppression and defend the oppressor. What was loyalty is now betrayal. From now on, if you don’t resist, you collude.”
Moses decided that he was done colluding.
“He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12)
We don’t know how horrific the beating was that Moses interrupted.
We don’t know if his actions saved the life of the enslaved Israelite. We don’t know whether he might have had the power to help many more of his kin by interceding with Pharaoh’s daughter—or whether he might even have had access to Pharaoh himself. We just don’t know.
And while his actions seem fairly impulsive, he was not entirely overwhelmed by emotion. He paused before taking action to make sure nobody was around—turning this way and that—and, after killing the Egyptian holding the whip, buried him carefully in the sand, hoping, one assumes, that nobody would find him.
He made choices.
And his secret does not remain one for long.
When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?”
He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:13-14)
Well, that probably didn’t go how Moses imagined it would.
Which—probably this is a moment for him to pause and recalibrate his expectations. Was he expecting the Israelites whose fight he interrupted to say, “Gosh, shucks, Moses, thanks for having our best interests at heart”? Was he expecting them to relate to him as kin? As an authority figure? Did he think that they would fall over themselves welcoming his new self-appointed role as rift mediator?
Did he think that they might have known about his killing the Egyptian foreman and been glad to hand him ally tiger nut sweets—the ancient Egyptian equivalent of ally cookies1—for his efforts?
It seems clear from this one verse that his kinfolk are angry at his attempts to intercede in their lives. Perhaps they regard him resentfully, as a privileged boy living in the palace while they suffer under the taskmasters of his adoptive family. Perhaps they, too, are aware of this kinship connection, but they regard him as overly aligned with their own oppressors. Perhaps they are all too aware of the likelihood that, regardless of who killed this Egyptian, it is their bodies that will pay the price for the murder.
His interruption of the beating is seen not as a noble act of justice for an exploited people, but, rather, as rash and unimpressive, more harmful than of service.
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Moses did not ask the enslaved Israelites what they needed, did not think through the possible consequences his actions might have for them—what this dead Egyptian might mean for their safety, their workload, their lives. He did not have their consent. He did not plan his intervention with them, he did not find out if it would be welcome.
Attempts at allyship do not become useful simply because the party with privilege would like them to be.
Now, I want to pause here to name that allyship may be a strange word to describe the relationship between Moses and the Israelites at this time. After all, they’re kinfolk, no? Exodus 2:11—the first verse cited in this discussion—makes a point of underscoring that, naming it not just once, but twice! He’s an Israelite! It’s not as though he’s interacting with a group whose lives are so different than his, compared to whose he has a tremendous amount of structural privilege… oh.
Even that the Torah tells us that the drama with the slain Egyptian begins when he “went out to his kinsfolk” reminds us that most of the time he is someplace else, elsewhere. He is not experiencing involuntary servitude. He may be part of the same ethnic group or people or kin or whatever you want to call it, but in this, his life, and his experiences mark him as other. And the Israelites know it.
And then, in the middle of all this, Pharaoh learns of the murder and seeks to have Moses killed in response, so how does Moses handle things? He flees to the land of Midian.
Here, Moses’ attempts at leadership and solidarity are insufficient; the Israelites are not glad for his role, he does not change their situation in any meaningful way, and in the end he chooses to run away from the situation to save himself.
Here, he does not help, he does not offer hope, he does not make anything better.
In 2014, Indigenous Action Media published a ‘zine called Accomplices Not Allies. In it, the anonymous authors wrote,
“At some point there is a ‘we’ and we most likely will have to work together. This means, at the least, formulating mutual understandings that are not entirely antagonistic… But we need to know who has our backs, or more appropriately: who is with us, at our sides? The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different than that of an accomplice.
When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle toward liberation, we are accomplices.
Moses has not learned yet how to be an accomplice to the Israelites. He does not have their backs, or their sides.
His support was temporary, and it hurt, rather than helped, those he was hoping to support—he did not engage them with humility, he acted rashly with no real plan and no understanding of the impact of his choices, and he bolted the moment things got tricky for him, personally.
We know that he, eventually, will grow in his understanding of the work.
Let us, too, remember what is demanded of the fight for justice.
We must all become complicit, at one another’s sides, as accomplices in our shared struggles towards liberation.
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“Ally cookies” is slang for the special praise sought by some people who are not of a certain marginalized group from members of that marginalized group—usually but not always for doing the bare minimum (sometimes for doing things that are just more harmful than helpful, like Moses). Examples include, eg, “You don’t get ally cookies for simply acknowledging that trans people exist and are valid, Ploni, nice try,” or, “People think that they get ally cookies by alerting me to every incidence of antisemitism on Twitter, when, really, better allyship would be for them to do the emotional labor of just handling it and not subjecting me to that garbage.” Etc.