When Moses leaves the comfort of the royal palace and goes out for himself to see how his fellow Israelites are existing under Egyptian slavery, he is shocked to discover that an Egyptian Taskmaster is beating a Hebrew Slave for apparently no reason, and 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 Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the great nineteenth century head of the famous Volozhin yeshiva and author of the commentary, the Ha’amek Davar, wonders how likely it would be that such an event is taking place with no bystanders? The slave labour in Egypt would normally be expected to take place in work gangs rather than in isolation. Why is it, then, that Moses says that he looked around and saw no-one?

The Ha’amek Davar explains that indeed there were people around. However, no-one was prepared to come forward and help. Everyone cowered back. What Moses meant when he said that “there was no man,” was that there was no-one who was prepared to stand up and be a man under these circumstances. When Moses 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)