This week’s parsha introduces us to Moshe Rabbeinu. To a large extent, we see the transformation of Moshe from crying infant to defiant leader who, by the end of the parsha, argues with God Himself. We have previously looked at a large portion of this parsha to discern some of Moshe’s concerns and hesitations during the encounter at the burning bush (see http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=873). In the ensuing lines we will focus on one verse which says much about who Moshe was and who he was destined to become.
Upon leaving the royal palace, Moshe, now a young man, mingles amongst his brothers. Immediately, he witnesses their suffering and comes across an Egyptian man hitting one of his Hebrew brothers. The Torah then states:
ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש, ויך את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול
“He turned this way and that and seeing no one was about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Shemot 2:12)
The above translation is that of JPS which explains “ki ein ish” as “no one was about”. The Jerusalem Bible (Koren) and Artscroll both translate this phrase as “there was no man”. Here we find a classic example of how translations have to side with one commentator or another and do not enable us to delve into the true meaning of the text which allows for multiple implications of the same words.
Rav Don Yitchak Abarbanel cites the simplest understanding of this passuk which matches the JPS translation. Moshe looked all around him before killing the Egyptian to make sure that nobody could see what he was doing. He then hid the evidence by burying the body in sand. As Abarbanel explains, Moshe was concerned that he not be charged with murder and so took these precautions.
If this is indeed the case, why did Moshe kill the Egyptian? Was it simply to avenge the beating he was administering to the Hebrew slave, described here as Moshe’s brother. Was this a form of honor killing – this Egyptian man was beating his brother, Moshe made him pay for his brutality? This may be the case but we speculate as to the significance of this event if it was a mere one time occurrence.
Abarbanel answers this concern by stating that by risking his life in order to avenge the blood of his brother, the youthful Moshe demonstrates his devotion to his people and his courage to fight for their rights – And this despite his having grown up among the Egyptians.
Abarbanel continues by adding to this idea. He suggests that the phrase in the passuk “he turned this way and that” could refer to Moshe’s thought process as he considered the ramifications of what he was about to do. Would he be overcome by the Egyptian and killed? Would he be discovered and punished with imprisonment or death? But as Moshe saw the helpless Hebrew slave looking into his eyes and praying for salvation he understood two things. There was no other ish – either Moshe would save this man or he would probably die as a result of the beating. In addition, if he walked away, he would no longer be worthy of being called an ish. For only one who stands up to his responsibilities and does what is expected of him has the right to carry the name ish.
Malbim also relates to this passuk as testimony to Moshe’s character. According to Malbim, the fact that Moshe turned this way and that shows that this was not a rash, hasty attack motivated by anger. Rather, Moshe thought carefully about what he was doing and, despite the risk involved, decided to do what he deemed to be right.
Rav Moshe Lichtenstein (RML) in his book Tzir Vetzon (P26) suggests that the phrase “ki ein ish” could be understood on a further level. Moshe looked around him and saw a lack of decency, a dearth of people with a moral backbone, with a sense of humanity. Having grown up in the annals of the royal home, Moshe assumed that the world around him was one of dignity and respect. He was shocked to discover that in the world outside there were those who treated others as inferior, to the extent that they beat them to death. It was this that caused his outrage and his determination to act. Moshe could not accept this atrocious behavior and felt the need to stand up for the rights of the weaker man, not just as his brother but also as his fellow human being.
RML then makes a fascinating observation. If Moshe intended to keep this killing a secret he was not very successful. After all, the very next verses recall Moshe’s conversation with two Israelite men involved in a struggle during which they relate to Moshe’s slaying of the Egyptian man. RML contends that Moshe in fact wanted news of his slaying of the Egyptian to get out; not to the authorities but rather to his fellow Jews. It was Moshe’s hope that his act of defiance would be the beginning of a people’s rebellion against the great Egyptian tyrant.
Alas it was not to be. The people were not yet ready to fight or rebel. This should not come as a surprise to us for they were all consumed in the harsh physical labor and required all their energy simply to survive. It does however tell us great deal about Moshe and his aspirations to attain freedom for his brethren.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:5) states in the name of Hillel:
ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש
Where there are no anashim, try to be an ish.
In the context of the mishna this phrase could mean that if there are no men of stature in your town from whom to learn Torah, endeavor to teach oneself. Rav Pinchas Kehati adds a further explanation. If there is a lack of people who are prepared to deal with communal matters, then one should take it upon oneself to do so.
Based on the events we have described above we can add another dimension to the understanding of this mishna. When there is an obvious lack of people to stand up for humanity in general and Am Yisrael in particular, then make sure to step up and be an ish. But really we don’t have to wait for an absence of anashim, we should try in every situation to do the right thing – take every opportunity to be an ish.