13th century BCE: Moses leaves the comfort of the royal palace and goes out for himself to see the condition of his fellow Israelites under Egyptian slavery. He is shocked to discover that an Egyptian Taskmaster is beating a Hebrew slave for apparently no reason. To his horror, the slave is being beaten to death.

The Torah then says that Moses “looked this way and that; he saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.” [Exodus 2:12]

Rabbi N. Z. Y. Berlin (19th century, Volzhin), author of the commentary, the Ha’amek Davar, wonders how likely it would be that this event could take place with no bystanders? Slave labour in Egypt normally functioned in work gangs rather than in isolation. Why would it say that Moses looked around and saw no one?

Rabbi Berlin explains that there were people around. However, no one was prepared to come forward and help. Everyone cowered back. What Moses actually saw that there was no one who was prepared to stand up and be a man under these circumstances. When he saw this, he of course leapt into action. As it says in Ethics of the Fathers: “Where there is no man, strive to be a Man.” (2:5)

The late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein quotes another explanation of this passage that adds a psychological gloss to this incident. Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace. He understood the psyche and the outlook of the Egyptian ruling class. Yet, he also knew his origins. On the day in question, “Moses… went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens…” (Exodus 2:11)

Moses was undergoing what today we would call an identity crisis. Am I a Hebrew or am I an Egyptian? When he sees a Hebrew being tortured, he is torn. Am I with the oppressor or with the oppressed? The verse says that he looked this way and that; he saw that there was no man. He felt internally split. He was conflicted. There was no wholesome person within him – there was no man. Moses then made the fateful decision that has impacted on history ever since. He identified with his people and killed the Egyptian. And, at a psychological level, he killed his internal Egyptian and buried him in the sand of his subconscious.