"He looked this way and that and saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand" Exodus 2:12


In this week's parashah, Moses leaves the privileged confines of Pharaoh's palace and witnesses an Egyptian attacking an Israelite slave. Moses looks around, sees no-one and beats the Egyptian to death.

Rashi offers a literal explanation, suggesting that Moses looked around and killed the Egyptian once he was sure that he could not be seen.

This literal reading is problematic. On a practical level, it seems unlikely that nobody witnessed these events. Indeed, just a few verses later, we read that Moses could in fact be seen and the matter was duly reported to Pharaoh.

There are more profound difficulties. This is Moses's first independent act. This story establishes him as the man who will come to epitomise Jewish leadership. Furtively checking that the coast is clear before pummelling a man to death are not the actions of a great leader. What is meant by this phrase and why is it used in this opening scene?

Some have suggested that Moses was not alone, but in fact surrounded by Egyptians who also witnessed the attack on the slave. Moses looked around, hoping that one of these Egyptians would react. When nobody did, he intervened himself. This reading paints a picture of Moses as a man of courage and compassion, willing to endanger himself to protect the vulnerable.

Others understand the story differently, suggesting that Moses was actually looking at the Israelites. He was waiting for one of the Israelites to act on the slave's behalf. When nobody did, Moses stepped forward to kill the Egyptian.

This understanding raises the bar of leadership. A good leader is able to confront his enemies. But it takes a great leader to fly in the face of his own people to do what is right.

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