By Rabbi Isaac Mann
There are certain verses or expressions in the Torah that lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations despite their having a simple plain meaning (referred to hereafter as peshat). One of these is found in this week’s sidra of Shemot that describes Moses’ very first action as an adult. The Torah tells us (Ex. 2:11-12) that when he grew up, he went out [from Pharaoh's palace] and looked at the plight of his brethren and saw an Egyptian man [presumably a taskmaster] beating a Hebrew [slave] from among his (Moses’) brethren. “And he turned this way and that way (ko va-kho) and saw there was no man (va-yar ki ein ish), and he slew the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”
The peshat of ko vakho is obvious. Moses looked all around and saw – or thought he saw – no one observing him. Of course, as we know from the next incident described in the Torah (vv. 13-14), Moses’ action was observed or became known somehow. The rabbis of the Midrash were not satisfied with just the plain meaning and offered other interpretations, two of which are cited by Rashi (on v. 12). The first one Rashi mentions is that Moses investigated the actions of the Egyptian both at home as well as in the field. As elaborated in the Midrashic sources (see, e.g. Midrash Ha-Gadol ad loc. and Rashi on v. 11), he saw that the Egyptian raped the slave’s wife at night and then went and beat the husband in the field during the day. The second interpretation is that Moses looked into the future and saw that no one good (literally, no Jewish convert) would ever come from the descendants of the Egyptian were he to live. Apparently these two, among others found in the Midrashic literature, were favored by Rashi.
What motivated the Rabbis to find alternate explanations to the plain peshat is not clear. The most widely-cited commentary on Rashi – Siftei Hakhamim - suggests that were it not for the Egyptian being guilty of rape, Moses would not have slain him for just beating a slave who perhaps was not doing his full load of assigned work. Alternatively, he would not have killed him if possibly some good could have come out from him even in a future generation. Thus, to “protect” Moses from appearing to take the shedding of blood too lightly, the Midrash added to the severity of what the Egyptian was doing and to his future worthlessness.
Besides that possible motivation, it appears to me that the Midrash, and Rashi in turn, found the expression ko vakho somewhat problematic, for the word ko, found many times in the Tanakh, refers to an action, for example, ko amar or ko ya’aseh (“thus he said” or “such shall be done”). We generally don’t find it having a directional meaning. Better would have been the expression va-yifen po ve-sham (“he turned here and there”) or yamin u-semol (“right and left”). Thus, the Rabbis understood ko va-kho as indeed referring to some action rather than simply a reference to different directions. Moses acted by looking into the matter before he killed the Egyptian. He went to the Hebrew slave’s home and found out what he did to the wife. He looked into a crystal ball, so to speak, and saw through his divine powers that no potential descendant from this taskmaster would ever make this a better world.
The Midrashic interpretations add to our understanding of Moses’ eminence and what made him the greatest leader that the Jewish people ever had. Besides what we can learn from the peshat, namely that Moses had a deep love and abiding attachment to his brethren and could not bear to see their affliction, certainly a necessary ingredient for Jewish leadership, we also learn that he did not act hastily in a knee-jerk manner. He did not kill a fellow human being without proper attention to all the details surrounding the Egyptian’s actions – and even more important, he did not overlook the consequences of his actions – both the immediate ones and the long-term ones.
The Rabbis, by adding their insights into the Biblical expression, teach us what true leadership consists of – careful consideration of all the facts before you take action and studied attention to the consequences of your action. If only our leaders, Jewish and secular, would learn from Moses, what a better world we would be living in.
As an aside, a more recent interpretation, namely that of Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) in his Ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah, suggests that Moses looked around and saw there was no man, meaning no man willing to help the slave who was being beaten, and so Moses stepped in and saved his life by killing the Egyptian assailant. His interpretation is somewhat problematic, for it implies that Moses expected others to come to the aid of the Hebrew slave. But as we well know, one could hardly expect a slave nation, beaten down and demoralized, to stand up and take such assertive action and most assuredly risk their own lives. Only a self-assured Moses, who was raised in a palace and never felt the blows of a whip, could step up to the plate.
Nevertheless, this interpretation adds another feature to what true leadership consists of – the ability to stand up and do what’s right even if, or especially if, no one else is willing to take the risk. Moses took the plunge and saved the life of the beaten Hebrew slave. For this he chanced his own life and had to go into exile – but with that he demonstrated the qualities that surely propelled him into being the great leader that God chose to bring His people their freedom.