18 Tevet 5774 / Dec. 20-21, 2013
With this week’s portion, Shemot, we begin the Book of Exodus. We learn that a new Pharaoh comes to power who chooses to ignore Joseph’s legacy, and who in turn decides to oppress the Israelites (ultimately decreeing that all newborn Israelite boys should be killed).
Moses is born, is hidden for three months, is sent down the Nile and is shortly thereafter discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’s sister Miriam approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and offers to fetch a midwife for her (Moses’s mother!). Thus, Moses actually spends the next couple of years at home being nursed, and only once weaned was brought to his new palatial home.
The Torah says next to nothing about the subsequent portion of Moses’s life – the next thing we learn is that once grown, he strikes and kills an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite. Despite being part of the family, Moses learns that Pharaoh wants to kill him due to his actions, so Moses flees to Midian.
In his time in Midian, Moses becomes a shepherd, marries Tzipporah, and has a couple of sons. After a period of time, Moses encounters the Burning Bush and is charged by God to go to Egypt in order to free the Israelites from bondage.
Moses is incredibly resistant to the task:
“Who am I that I should do this?”
“What if they ask your name?”
“What if they don’t believe me?”
“But I’m slow of speech and tongue…”
“Please make someone else your agent…”
Moses is so resistant that God actually gets angry with him, and ultimately tells him that he’ll have Aaron join him in order to serve as his mouthpiece.
On that note, Moses takes his wife and sons and begins the journey back to Egypt.
After a brief middle-of-the-night interlude where God tries to kill “him” (the text is unclear whether it’s referring to Moses or to one of his sons), with the attack subsiding post Tzipporah circumcising one of their sons, Moses and Aaron reunite after decades apart, and together approach the Israelite elders and then the broader population, who are convinced that they are indeed messengers of God (God had prepped Moses with a few miracles / magic tricks to show off in order to help persuade them).
Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh for the first time (this is a new Pharaoh – NOT the one who Moses grew up knowing) and ask for permission for the Israelites to go on a 3-day journey to worship God in the wilderness (note that they don’t say “Let My People Go”!). Pharaoh declines their request, and increases the workloads of the Israelites as a result. Needless to say, the Israelites are upset.
The portion ends with Moses calling out to God, asking why God had sent him to make the lives of the Israelites harder. God responds: don’t worry -- I got this. You’ll soon see what will happen to Pharaoh.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this week’s portion in my mind is how reluctant Moses was to be God’s messenger. You’d think that upon having a Divine revelatory experience, one might feel quite stoked about following through on some specific assignments. Did Moses’s hesitation indicate a lack of faith? Why was Moses chosen in the first place? Maybe it was due to a preexisting relationship with the Pharaoh (while it was a new Pharaoh in power, given that Moses spent roughly 40 years in Egypt growing up as the adopted son of royalty, there’s a decent chance he would have met the new guy at some point…), which would provide the opportunity to appear before him? The Midrash suggests that it’s because as a shepherd, Moses cared for each individual sheep, and not just the flock as a whole, signifying his ability to shepherd the entire Israelite nation, person by person, out of Egypt.
The Bible itself (later, in Numbers 12:3) states: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.”
Some might argue that valuing such intense humility means that we are doomed to produce reluctant leaders. After all, it’s quite evident that without God’s backing, Moses would not have led. I would however counter that the major lesson we should be taking from this week’s portion is that by highlighting Moses’s reluctance, the Torah is emphasizing that the mission is more important than the man (or woman).
This Shabbat, reflect on your own leadership experiences, and their intersection with humility. Are you jumping at opportunities to lead because it’ll look good on a resume, or because you believe in the mission at hand? Are you humble? (hint: if you answer “yes,” you might not be as humble as you think…). Do you have a right-hand-person and confidant, the way Moses did with Aaron?
Let’s resolve to be humble enough to at times remove our selves and our needs from the equation, in order to make sure it’s the needs of others and impact we’re having on them that remains our focus.