Why was there “no man”? Does it mean that no-one was looking?
Adopting this view, Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “He looked in all directions to be sure that he was unobserved and could dare to do the deed… He is far from that daring boldness which rushes without thinking into danger”.
The author of “HaK’tav V’haKabbalah” has a different opinion. To him, “He looked this way and that” means that he looked at the Israelites who were standing by in the expectation that one of them would come forward to help the victim, but “there was no man” – no-one had the courage to come forward and help.
In his “Ha’amek Davar”, the Natziv (Naftali Tzvi Y’hudah Berlin) sees the incident differently again.
Why was the Egyptian attacking the Israelite? It seems to have been simply because he was a Jew. What did Moses do? “He looked this way and that”. He turned to this court and that, seeking a tribunal to which he could bring an appeal for justice.
But Egyptian law was flawed. Members of a slave people had no legal rights or redress. The judges would not intervene. “There was no man”, and Moses felt he had to take the law into his own hands.
The Midrash comments that this is acceptable for the Almighty but not for a human being.
In a passage with echoes of the Moses story, Isaiah says, “The Lord looked, and it was evil in His eyes that there was no justice. He saw there was no man and was astonished that no-one intervened, so His own arm brought salvation” (Isa. 59:15-16).
When God later told Moses he was going to die, Moses complained. “You, God, killed all the firstborn of Egypt; shall I die because of one Egyptian?” God, however, retorted, “How can You compare yourself to Me who both causes to die and restores to life?” (Midrash P’tirat Moshe).
Whatever the provocation, it is a grave sin to play God and take a human life.