We read in Parashat Shemot of Moshe’s experiences when he left the palace where he was raised, to observe Benei Yisrael’s plight as slaves. On the first day, the Torah tells, he encountered an Egyptian violently beating a slave, whereupon Moshe “turned this way and that way, saw there was no man, and he struck the Egyptian,” killing him (2:12). Pharaoh would later hear of what Moshe did, forcing Moshe to flee Egypt.
Rashi, based on the Midrash (Shemot Rabba 1:29), famously explains the phrase “he saw there was no man” to mean that Moshe prophetically foresaw that this Egyptian taskmaster would not beget any descendants who would join Am Yisrael. Whereas the simple meaning of the verse, clearly, is that Moshe looked around to ascertain that there would be no witnesses to his act, the Midrash explains that Moshe looked into the future, through his prophetic insight. Only after determining that no righteous person would ever emerge from the violent taskmaster’s descendants did Moshe proceed to strike him and rescue the beaten slave.
Taken at face value, the Midrash’s interpretation seems difficult to understand. It stands to reason that Moshe’s decision of how to respond to the scene he witnessed should not depend on prophetic factors, such as who the taskmaster’s descendants would be. If the immediate circumstances called for slaying the taskmaster in order to alleviate the pain of the Israelite slave, then this is what Moshe should have done even if it could be expected that the taskmaster would beget righteous descendants if he were allowed to live. This weighty decision, seemingly, should not have depended at all on the offspring that the culprit was destined to produce.
Perhaps a symbolic reading of the Midrash’s comment can be suggested, according to which it seeks to give us a perspective on the process of Yetziat Mitzrayim that was now unfolding.
Possibly, the Midrash viewed this incident as representative of the entire story of Benei Yisrael’s enslavement, and the process of the Exodus. A strong, powerful empire enslaved and oppressed a weak, helpless nation, in response to which God – through His agent, Moshe – responded with a harsh blow, devastating the empire in order to rescue the downtrodden slaves. In this sense, Moshe’s encounter with the taskmaster provides us with a microcosmic model of the entire story of Benei Yisrael’s bondage and redemption. Chazal here teach us that this decision to “kill” the “taskmaster,” to bring devastation upon the Egyptian Empire, was made because God foresaw that no good could possibly result from such a society. The empire had to be brought to its knees because a culture rooted in cruelty and oppression cannot produce any long-term benefit to the world. Societies with serious flaws can be improved and advanced from within, just as individuals with flaws can work to grow and improve. But God visited destruction upon ancient Egypt because its society was deeply entrenched in the philosophy of a God-given right to oppress and torment, and he deemed such a society wholly incapable of yielding any sort of benefit for mankind.