Moses’ Qualities

 The first Jewish leader, Moses, was raised in Pharaoh’s palace. When he grew up and went out of the palace to see how his brethren were faring, he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jewish slave. The Torah describes Moses’ reaction thus: “He turned this way and that way, and he saw that no man was there so he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

 This was a life-changing event for Moses.  The Torah uses it to signify that Moses was a man of action and a leader. It follows then that every detail in this brief narrative can provide us with information about Moses, his personality and his leadership.

 If we had to describe Moses’ most salient qualities, they could be summed up as follows:

1.      Moses was the liberator, leader of and provider for the Jewish people. He is often referred to as “Go’el Rishon-the First Redeemer” and “Raya Mehemna-The Faithful Shepherd.”

2.      Moses was the one through whom G‑d gave us the Torah.  He is thus called Moshe Rabeinu-Moses our Teacher.

3.      Moses was the ultimate prophet. In the Torah, G‑d declares that no one else has ever arisen with prophetic abilities comparable to those of Moses.

It stands to reason that we should be able to find all of these qualities in the Egyptian taskmaster narrative.  Let us now analyze Moses’ response to the beating of his fellow Jew.

Moses the Liberator, Shepherd and Prophet

Moses liberated the Jew from the murderous hands of the Egyptian taskmaster. In so doing, he demonstrates the lengths he would go to save his fellow Jew and care for his needs. Indeed, as a first step, Moses left the comfort and privilege of the palace to see how his brethren were doing.  It is only then that he saw the beating of the Jew.  That moment utterly transformed his self-perception.  In a flash of G‑d inspired insight, this member of the privileged Egyptian elite recognized a profound truth: he is brother to the Jewish slave and has a duty to save him from the taskmaster.  This demonstrates the degree to which Moses showed concern for his flock.

We also can see Moses acting here as a prophet of astonishing power.  Rashi teaches us that the words “he saw that no man was there . . .” means that Moses saw that “no person is destined to descend from him that will convert [to Judaism].” He demonstrated his prophetic prowess even at that early stage of his life.

 Where is Moses’ Role as Torah Giver?

The question, however, remains: where do we see hints of Moses’ role as the giver of the Torah in this story?

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the legendary founder of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshivah in Pre-World War II Poland, explains this verse homiletically:

“He turned this way and that way” is interpreted to mean that he turned to the right and turned to the left and discovered that “there is no man here.” This refers to the two competing ideologies hotly debated in modern society. Some argue that the political right cares more for freedom and human dignity. Others contend that the left is more concerned with the common man and for the well-being of all humanity.

Moses, upon seeing the injustice being perpetrated against one of his brethren looked in both directions for guidance. Will the “right” show him how to address society’s ills and bring freedom, fairness and justice? Or, perhaps, one must look to the “left” for governance and relief.

Moses searches in vain for a man-made ideology that can solve the problems of the world and bring salvation. He looked this way and that in vain and concluded that “there is no man.” There is no one else here who cares or who is capable of accomplishing anything positive. Moses then “buried” the Egyptian culture and ideology in the ground. Moses recognized that secular culture is no more effective than the dust of the earth.

This is Moses’ connection to Torah. To appreciate the Torah’s uniqueness as a way of life one must understand the futility of all the other systems. Moses now recognized that constructing a perfect ideological system was beyond the powers of man.

The Admixture of Good in Secular Systems

Does this mean that there is no good in non-Torah ideologies? Is there no value in the democratic ideals and expansion of personal freedom that secular ideologies have contributed to society?

Indeed, there is much good in man-made systems.  We must remain aware, however, that every good aspect of life always has, at least a tinge of adversity. Conversely, every negative experience always has at least a tinge of positivity. In the words of the Alter Rebbe: “This admixture commenced after the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, [when that] which had been formally totally separate, became mixed together. Nothing is pure any longer; there is no good without evil and vice-versa.”

Only the G‑d given teachings of the Torah are pure and free from the intrusion of negative energy.

The Rebbe explains the phenomenon thus: “The laws and ethical precepts of Torah (those contained, for example, in the tractate Avos [Ethics of the Father] et al.) are the epitome of goodness and truth. All other systems of morality, however, which men by themselves have contrived, mix together positive and negative, truth and falsehood.”

Where Does the Good in Other Systems Originate?

One may reasonably ask the question: from where does the positive energy within man-made institutions come?

The answer is simple: Torah. The Rebbe relates that his father-in-law (the Previous Rebbe) was once asked by advocates of competing political ideologies which of their philosophies the Torah agreed with. The Previous Rebbe’s response was: “The Torah, since it is the absolute perfection of truth and goodness, contains within itself all of the best ideas which one may find in all ideologies.”

Which Direction is Torah

If the secular ideologies are characterized as “left” and “right,” how then are we to describe Torah?

The answer is that Torah is actually the center. But it is not the center as in “moderate” or “lukewarm,” rather it is the center as in “central,” that around which all else revolves.  It is the center because it comprises both the right (chesed-kindness) and the left (gevurah-judgment) and synthesizes them. Torah, as the Rebbe stressed, is the epitome of truth. Truth is impartial to arguments from either of the directions. If truth dictates veering to one particular direction then so be it. If truth then demands that we make an about-turn and go in the opposite direction so be it! Truth is unlimited and cannot be swayed by any other consideration. One of the 13 Principles of Faith, postulated by Maimonides, is that the Torah can never be changed; it is immutable.

Moses: Right and Left

One could understand his looking to the right and left on a non-spatial level, which establishes Moses’ connection to Torah in a more direct manner.

When the Torah states that Moses looked in both directions, it did not mean that he was thinking about the Egyptian notion of right and left. He did not entertain the notion that Egyptian culture provided the answer to the moral dilemma of a Jew being beaten. Rather, he was already thinking of the Torah’s notion of right and left. The Torah is compared to water in Biblical texts because water is life sustaining and an expression of chesed-kindness. Torah is also called fire because, like fire, it can destroy evil.

Moses surveyed the situation at hand. Here is a Jew, beaten mercilessly by the cruel Egyptian taskmaster.  Moses therefore took his inspiration from both the right—his sense of love for his fellow Jew (chesed) —and the left—his desire to rid the world of unmitigated evil and cruelty (gevurah).  Moses, like the Torah itself, combined both right and left, water and fire.

Moses’ ability to combine right and left is alluded to in his very name: the word “Moses” is said to be an acronym for Moshe, Shamai and Hillel (See Likkutei Sichos 5752, parshas Shemini).  Shamai and Hillel were two of the most famous Sages and known for their opposite personalities.  Shamai was the stern disciplinarian who rejected a would-be convert who wanted to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel, on the other hand, told the same seeker the famous words, “What is hateful to you do not do to others.”

Moses was a composite of both Hillel and Shamai, and he was therefore the very personification of Torah. And it was to Torah that he went to get direction and inspiration as to how to deal with the cruel taskmaster.

No Man!

We must now understand the connection of this idea to the words “and he saw that no man was there.”

When Moses embraced the totality of Torah, its Divine synthesis of right and left, he saw that “no man was there;” it is not a man made ideology.  Torah came from no mortal thought or speech; it is G‑d’s unadulterated, immortal word.

Hiding in the Sand

The Torah continues, “He struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” The “Egyptian” here alludes to the power of exile to oppress, confine and limit the Jew both physically and spiritually. The word for Egypt in Hebrew is “Mitzrayim,” which carries with it the connotation of constraints and limits; the hallmark of Galus-exile.

When we can combine both of Torah’s directions in the Moses mode, we are able to bury Galus-exile in the sand.

As long as our approach to Torah is one-sided - because we view it from the perspective of one among many equally competing ideologies and disciplines - we and the Torah remain enmeshed in Galus. Even when we view Torah as Divine but see it as being limited in scope, we are seeing Torah in a compromised Galus form. However, when we realize the infinite and multi-directional level of Torah, we can gain access to its elevated essence and transcend all the manifestations of exile.

The seeds for the Egyptian Exodus were thus sown when Moses went out to see how his brethren were doing and applied the Torah-synthesis towards saving the Jewish slave.

The lesson for us here in the last generation of Galus and first generation of Geulah-Redemption is that we must bury the exile constraints in the sand, i.e., recognize that Torah, unlike other disciplines, is not a “man.” Torah is Divine. When we internalize and live by the Moses-model of humility we can access that Divinity, which enables us to break out of all the constraints of Exile, with the imminent Redemption through Moshiach.