Rabbi Avi Weiss, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
After being raised in the Egyptian palace, Moshe ( Moses) goes into the field and sees an Egyptian smiting a Jew. "He looked this way and that way, and when he saw there was no man (ish) he smote the Egyptian."
The literal interpretation is -- Moshe looked to see if anyone was watching. With the coast clear, Moshe defends the Jew. But the simple text is not so simple. In the midst of a busy working field, its doubtful that no one was there.
Hence, the view of Netziv (Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 18th Century in his Ha'amek Davar), Moshe, seeing a Jew beaten, looked to see if any Egyptian would stand up for him. In the absence of Egyptian or worldly justice, Moshe acted. All too frequently the world is silent as Jews are attacked.
Rav Ya'akov Zvi Mecklenberg (19th century in Haketav VeHakabalah) sees it differently. Moshe understood that no Egyptian would come forward. He looked however, to see whether any Jew would care enough to save his brother. When no Jew did, Moshe killed the Egyptian. Tragically, too often, even in contemporary times Jews don't care for their fellow Jews.
There is one other approach. Moshe was raised in an Egyptian home, but nursed by his biological Jewish mother. As a consequence Moshe was unsure who he really was. When seeing an Egyptian smiting a Jew, he looked within himself to ascertain whether he should help the Egyptian or defend the Jew? That's the real meaning of, "he looked this way and that way," that is , he looked within himself to see who he really was - was he Egyptian or Jewish.
When he fully grasps that he had not firmly established his identity, he makes a decision - he smites the Egyptian part of himself and declares - I am a Jew.
The Talmud tells of an aging man who in a polygamous society decides to marry a second younger wife. Both wives vie for his affection. "You're graying," said his wife of many years. "Why not age maturely?"
As she speaks, she plucks his black hair and says, "Look into the mirror and you'll see you're all gray." The younger wife, not to be denied, declares, "You're old in age but young in vigor." As she speaks she plucks out his gray hair, and tells him, "Look into the mirror and see that you're hair is all black." In the end, looking into the mirror, the man finds himself bald.
The message: at a certain point it's crucial for each of us to stop wavering, and to identify ourselves boldly and clearly.
And we find ourselves in a place where there is no problem (ish), it's crucial that each of us step in as Moshe did to make the difference. To paraphrase our rabbis, in a place where there is no ish, struggle to be one, (Ethics, 2:6)
Rabbi Avi Weiss
Rabbi Weiss is the Rav of "The Bayit" -- better known as The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
Please address your questions or comments to the Rabbi Avi Weiss
©1996. Rabbi Avi Weiss, Hebrew Institute of Riverdale
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