Parshat Shemot chronicles the beginning of Moshe’s ascension to greatness, and describes that “VaYigdal Moshe,” “Moshe grew up” (Shemot 2:11). Rashi and other Meforshim are quick to point out that this Pasuk is not referring to Moshe’s physical growth, but rather to Moshe’s growth in wisdom, empathy, and courage. He had developed the traits and skills that he would need to become the “Gadol HaDor,” leader of his generation.
In the next series of Pesukim the Torah goes out of its way to illustrate these characteristics. Moshe emerged from the palace ready, willing, and able to feel the suffering of his brethren and act courageously in order to properly address their situation.
In studying these Pesukim, one notices that there are a few words that seem to contradict this pristine image. For example, when Moshe saw the Mitzri mercilessly beating an Ivri, he became very upset and seemed committed to restoring a sense of justice and fairness, an ideal so important to him that he was willing to act regardless of the consequences. The Torah then adds seven words that seem to contradict this apparent image of responsibility and bravery. Before striking the offending Mitzri, “VaYifen Koh VaChoh VaYar Ki Ein Ish,” “And Moshe looked this way and that way and realized that no one was around” (2:12), and only then are we told, “VaYach Et HaMitzri,” “And he smote the Mitzri.” The perception of Moshe Rabbeinu glancing around to see if anyone was watching before he acted seems tantamount to a young schoolboy being afraid of getting caught by a teacher. Surely this is not the behavior of a Gadol, one who, by nature, should be valiant and dedicated to justice regardless!
To address this contradiction, Nechama Leibowitz instructs us to look at the comments of the Netziv and the Ketav VeHakabbala. The Netziv relates that Moshe’s inspection was not a cowardly attempt at avoidance of punishment; he was indeed committed to upholding lawfulness at all costs. When Moshe was looking back and forth he was not trying to hide his actions; rather, he was searching to see if he could report the incident that he had just witnessed instead of resorting to violence. However, the Torah tells us, “VaYar Ki Ein Ish.” Once he saw there was no one else around, Moshe understood only he was able to take control of the situation, and took action accordingly.
The Ketav VeHaKabbala opines that Moshe was looking around, waiting to see how other Jews would react to the attack on one of their brethren. But when Moshe saw that not one of the slaves even raised an eyebrow, he realized that his people were too worn down, broken, and distraught to respond, and therefore recognized that he was the sole person available and willing to address the situation.
Based on these comments, it is clear why the Torah chose to include the seven crucial words, “VaYifen Koh VaChoh VaYar Ki Ein Ish.” Such a phrase truly illustrates how Moshe Rabbeinu was indeed developing and emerging as a Gadol HaDor, a wise and virtuous leader always prepared to help his nation.