When There is No Man

ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש……

…Va’yifen koh vachoh vayar ki ein ish…


And when Moses had grown he went out to his fellow Hebrews and saw their suffering, and he saw an Egyptian man severely beat[1] one of his fellow Hebrews.  And Moses turned this way and that way and saw that there was no man, and he killed the Egyptian and he hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)


This passage has often bothered Biblical commentators because of the phrase “ein ish”.  What does it mean that there was no one around?  One possibility is that the Egyptian taskmaster was literally beating the Hebrew in an isolated area where no one was around except the two of them and Moses.  An alternative interpretation could be that there were people around but no one was watching the taskmaster oppress the Hebrew, since everyone was so engrossed in his or her own work.  A third possibility, and the one I think is most accurate, is that there were people around who were either watching the beating or hearing the cries of the oppressed but did not react to it.  It was a common experience for a slave to be beaten, so they would not be surprised by it.  While the Hebrew slaves might have wanted to defend their brother, they were numbed to the reality of their day and did not take action against the injustice.  Moses, on the other hand, was seeing the oppressiveness of the Egyptian taskmaster with eyes wide open, coming directly from Pharoah’s palace, and he was enraged.  When he saw that no one was doing anything about it, he took action on his own and slew the Egyptian.

Our rabbis teach a lesson based on a similar passage.  Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, contains the statement במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש, “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a man.”  If this statement is taken on solely a literal basis, it would not make much sense, as it would imply that one’s responsibility in striving to be a person only occurs in isolated places, where there is no one around.  Instead we must take a more figurative approach: that if there is no one stepping up in the face of injustice, we must put forth effort to be the person who steps forward.  If there are no people acting to make change in our communities, we must be the one who acts and who attempts to inspire others to action.

The story of Moses and the Egyptian and the aphorism in Pirkei Avot exemplify the quotation by Elie Wiesel “the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.”  Moses saw there was no one acting to defend his Hebrew brother and thus he decided to act.  He could have easily stood by and let the Egyptian taskmaster’s cruelty go unchecked, but instead he decided to defend the safety and honor of his brother.

The practical lesson that should be taken from this Torah portion is the importance of acting out against the injustices of our day.  It is sadly ironic that we read this portion immediately following the attack of Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris, in which 4 hostages were killed and 5 others wounded. Hyper Cacher was in my opinion deliberately attacked on a Friday afternoon, when the crowds would have been the greatest as Jews gathered in preparation for Shabbat. I read an account of a woman who hid in a freezer for hours, waiting for the police to arrive and the attackers to be taken out. Our hearts are with the victims and our prayers with those who are critically wounded. We cannot stand idly by while our brethren are attacked solely because they are Jews. We cannot stand by with the atrocities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria (who yesterday committed their deadliest attack yet) and Al-Shabab in Somalia. We cannot stand by when any human being is attacked, such as those of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo who were brutally murdered on Wednesday.

What are the ways that we can act against this injustice? Some of us act by giving money to relief organizations, others of us act by writing letters to public officials and others of us act by organizing rallies to inform the community about the grievances in the world and the importance of helping out.  We need to recognize all of these as being effective ways of acting out against injustice and applaud people for their efforts. I am challenging each of us to act by giving extra Tzedakah this month. At the end of the month the Tzedakah money will be sent to the Jewish Agency for Israel, helping French Jews who are striving to make Aliyah at this time.

As we reflect on the suffering in the world, both of our brethren and of those at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo, let us remember the quote לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה; “You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it.”  May we each do our part in working to overturn the suffering experienced by our brethren throughout the world. Let us each be “men,” like Moses, and stand up in the face of injustice for our people and for all humanity.

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