And it happened in those days that Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, from his brothers. He turned this way and that and saw there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand (chol). (Shemos 2:11-12)
The verse here is describing an incident from the younger years of Moshe that was a turning point in the development of Moshe as a leader of the Jewish People. There may be more to the event, though, than what appears on the surface of the story line. I once heard from one of my colleagues in the name of a great person a different way of experiencing the essence of Moshe’s struggle accounted here.
Moshe had grown up with a strong duel identity. He was nursed from his youth on his mother’s lap where he drank the milk of Jewish traditional values in the richest concentration. Our sages tell us it was Yocheved who was called to be the whet nurse for the Jewish child discovered by Pharoah’s daughter amongst the reeds. Moshe undoubtedly understood from the earliest days that he was a Jew and was purposely installed into his psyche by his great mother that was his purpose in life.
Yet Moshe grew in an environment that was the opposite of his true identity. It was not just different but it was diametrically opposed. Although Egypt was the world center of human wisdom and power, Reb Tzadik HaCohen states that the goal of all the accumulated technology was to advance the cause of personal degradation through the arts of a certain immorality. Moshe was raised in the capital of that corrupt value system. His experience in microcosm was the same as the entire Jewish Nation on a grand scale. He accomplished first what the people he was to help save would later need to go through to gain freedom.
When he confronted for the first time the suffering of his people he was immediately conflicted internally. The verse above describes the inner struggle of the future leader. There was an Egyptian struggling and afflicting the Jew within as well. The civil war of identities intensified by seeing manifest for the first time the dangerous mix of mutually exclusive ideologies and the aggressive hatred of one for the other.
Therefore the young man Moshe “looked here and there and saw there was no man” realizing that he could no longer remain neutral. He investigated his options and realized that either he passively accepts the dominance of the brutal Egyptian culture that has declared war on his people and their ideas or he can pretend that they can continue to remain friendly as coequal forces averting his eyes from apparent truth. In either case “this way or that” he will not have been a man, “there was no man”. Not in the masculine sense, but in the soul of his being. His deepest and most personal self-identity was at risk.
Therefore he decided to smite the Egyptian within and without and bury him in the sand, the chol, to relegate that part of his life experience to the category of secular, not to be assumed holy through nostalgia or accident of birth. Moshe was the first of his people to resolve the conflict that would only later become more acute for the whole nation. Because of that moment of resolve he chose himself to play a profound role in the birthing of a nation.