A (Fearful) Man with a Mission
By Rabbi Francine Roston
There is a rabbinic teaching that each of us is to carry two pieces of paper in our pockets. From our left pocket we can pull out the piece that reads: “From dust and ashes I have come.” From our right pocket we can pull out the piece that reads: “For my sake the world was created.” There are moments when we need our feet pulled down to the ground and there are moments when we need to be lifted up from low places. This powerful little tradition acknowledges that we each have our ups and downs, and we must struggle to ground ourselves in the middle — balancing our achievements with our failures, our doubts with our certainty.
I believe the story of Moses is also supposed to have this leveling effect. The Moses of our parashah is not the great leader who delivers the children of Israel from slavery, leads the people through the Sea of Reeds to safety, speaks face–to–face with God, and records and composes the law code for the Jewish people. That is the Moses who is leader par excellence. As the Yigdal anthem declares: “Lo kam b’yisrael k’moshe od navi u’mabit et temunato [There could never be a leader like this Moses. His greatness exceeded and exceeds all others].”
Yet, when we look closely at Moses at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the other side of Moses. In Parashat Sh’mot, Moses narrowly escapes death as a condemned baby boy, is raised by an Egyptian princess, is separated from his Israelite family, then flees his home in the palace after committing murder. Moses is a wanderer with no grounding in home or family. He is the “other” amongst his family in the palace, his family in Midyan, and his birth family of Israel. His identity is totally instable and he has no sense of who he is or of what he is capable.
From the beginning of the parashah to the end, we watch Moses struggle and question. He struggles against himself, his people, and his God. What we witness in the scene of the burning bush is Moses’ move from wanderer to a man with a mission. God calls out to Moses from the bush and Moses eventually takes the role for which he is destined.
But, first, Moses rejects God’s charge. What led Moses to take up the staff and lead with God’s mission? What helped him to develop into a leader?
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father–in–law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered: “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1—4, JPS)
God’s revelation was given gradually in a way that Moses could take it in step by step. First he was given a visual experience, then auditory, and then tangible, as he stood on the ground and was given specific marching orders. God’s revelation demanded Moses’ participation. Moses had to take the first step toward God, and only then did God call out to him. And, God must call Moses twice. Why? Maybe Moses was lost in his contemplation of the bush and didn’t hear God the first time. Maybe Moses was terrified at the awesome sight and ignored God’s first call because he was too fearful. In the end, Moses answered and declared his presence in the moment. Here I am, said Moses. I hear you. I see you. I sense you.
Yet, we know that true relationships are born out of the tests to their bonds. Standing beside the bush, Moses tested God and God taught Moses. In five different ways Moses rejected God’s calling: I don’t know who I am. I don’t know You. I don’t know Israel. I don’t know how to speak. Send someone else! At each turn, God replied and guided Moses to his place as a leader of God’s people with all his faults and frailties. Over and over again, God said: “Ehyeh emach / [I will be with you].” And what is God’s name, revealed to Moses: ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be). I will be with you, Moses, come what may. I will be with you, Moses, as I was with your ancestors. I formed a bond with them and I’m forming it with you. And I, God, will be as I will declare. My divine vision and purpose for the world will proceed whether you speak with a heavy tongue or with poetry. I will be what I will be and that is a power that you can relate to and become a part of and attach yourself to — or you can continue to wander in the desert.
I really believe that Moses was not overpowered by God and eventually caved in to God’s demands and God’s mission. I believe that Moses made a choice, after a life of wandering and dislocation. Moses chose to be in relationship with God because God offered what no human being yet had offered to Moses — continuous presence and empathic connection. God revealed God’s self in a lowly bush and showed Moses that God shared his suffering and would remain beside him as much as he might doubt it. As God lowered God’s self to dwell in a thorn bush, God lowered God’s self to be with this Moses — the Moses of self–doubt, the wanderer and the loner.
Through the revelation of the burning bush God established a relationship with Moses. God understood Moses weakness. God did not remove Moses’ doubts. God answered each of Moses’ challenges with the message: I am here. As you are here, says God, so I am here and I will not leave you. Similarly, Rashi commented on Exodus 3:12 and heard in God’s speech: Just as you saw the bush carry on My mission and it was not consumed, so shall you undertake my mission and you will not be destroyed. God didn’t say it would be easy. There would be fire and flames. God didn’t say there would be no suffering. God did say, over and over again, that humanity is not alone. God created us, gave us gifts, and accompanies us on the way. That is God’s side of the bargain. Our side is our responsibility to maintain the relationship, to worship God alone, to acknowledge God’s greatness and the gifts God gives us in our lives.
Watching Moses develop as a leader, we fragile and faulty leaders can take heart. Moses had doubts. Moses wandered in the wilderness. Moses felt isolated and alone. And yet, Moses stood before Israel and he stood before Pharaoh and he stood before God. All along the way, God stood beside Moses. When he was suffering or striving, Moses was not alone. God assured Moses that all of his being could be brought to this holy endeavor.
We are each pulled between life’s struggles and triumphs. As Moses wandered, we wander sometimes, seeking our way. As Moses rose to the heights of Sinai, we accomplish great things when we follow our mission bestowed upon us by the Almighty. May we all be inspired by Moses’ leadership and his challenges. May we learn from Moses so that we can serve God and lead Israel while bringing our entire beings to our holy endeavors.
Chancellor Ismar Schorsch has been a great leader to The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement. We are grateful for his lessons of leadership and the rich legacy he leaves to the leaders who follow in his footsteps. May God continue to be with him and guide his path as he will always be our rabbi and our teacher.
Rabbi Francine Roston
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary on Parashat Sh’mot are made possible by a generous gift from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.