Becoming Moses – Parshat Shemot

This week, we begin the Book of Exodus, and from here on out, Moses will be our guide. We will follow him from his precarious beginnings until his death, the final scene in the Torah. The epic saga of the Exodus, the story which defines the Jewish people, is, in many ways, the story of Moses.

So why Moses? Why was he chosen to be the great hero of our tale, and remembered lovingly forever after as “Moses, Our Teacher”?

In many ways, he was the unlikeliest of candidates. He was, by his own description, “not a man of words.” (Exodus 4:10) He never wanted the job to begin with, and tried desperately to refuse it. And he spends much of the journey brooding and grumbling, lamenting his unbearable task – even asking God at one point to, “just kill me already.” (Numbers 11:15)

Yet God seems certain that this is the one. For hundreds of years, the Israelites have been suffering in Egypt, with no help in sight, and then suddenly Moses is born and – voila –  God finally appears. It is as if Redemption itself has been waiting for the arrival of this one boy.

What was it about Moses?

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Perhaps he was just born special. Rashi tells us that at the moment of his birth:

…the whole house filled with light.

נתמלא הבית כולו אורה

Rashi is not just plucking this lovely image out of nowhere; he is picking up on some very particular language the Torah uses. When Moses’ mother gives birth, we read:

She saw him, that he was good. (Exodus 2:2)

וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּיטוֹב הוּא

This very familiar language is echoing the story of Creation, when God first creates light:

And God saw the light, that it was good. (Genesis 1:4)

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶתהָאוֹר, כִּיטוֹב

Moses’ birth, then, is like a new world being created. He is the harbinger of a whole new Beginning. Moses is like the light that emerges from total darkness. And like that first light, he has been fashioned by God for just this purpose. Even Pharaoh’s astrologers, the midrash tells us, foresee the coming of a redeemer, which is why they advise that all Israelite boys be killed. (Exodus Rabbah 1:18)

It was Moses they saw in the stars. Moses was the chosen one.

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Or perhaps the secret of Moses’ success isn’t nature, but nurture. The most striking feature of Moses’ early biography is that he is not just rescued, but rescued by the daughter of the Pharaoh and taken to live in the royal palace.  This Hebrew boy, who will one day lead his people to freedom, grows up as an Egyptian prince.

Perhaps this, then, is the key to Moses: he has a dual identity, and so he knows better than anyone how to communicate with both Israelites and Egyptians, and how the Pharaoh operates. He is the perfect go-between, for he has been unwittingly training in diplomacy his entire life. Sure, maybe Moses was a special boy, but it was his unique positioning, above all, that prepared him for the job ahead.

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There is some truth to both of these explanations. But if we look carefully at the moment that Moses is actually tapped by God, we find one other detail in the narrative which suggests that neither Moses’ divine birth nor his royal upbringing was enough to make Moses into the great savior of Israel. There was one more test he had to pass.

We usually think of God simply appearing to Moses at the Burning Bush and announcing the redemption. But that is not exactly the way it happened.

It is at first only an angel of God – a secondary representative – who appears in the form of a bush on fire, but not burning up. A strange sight, to be sure. But that’s it. No announcement. No revelation. No dialogue at all.

And then, Moses makes a move:

Moses said, “I must turn, to look at this marvelous sight. Why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (Exod. 3:3)

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁהאָסֻרָהנָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, אֶתהַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה:  מַדּוּעַ, לֹאיִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה.

Then – and only then – does God actually appear and engage Moses. The language in the next verse is very precise about it:

When the Lord saw that he had turned to look, God called out to him from the bush: “Moses! Moses!” And he answered, “I am here.” (Exod. 3:4)

וַיַּרְא ה‘, כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹקים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁהוַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי.

It is only when God sees that Moses has turned to look that the revelation takes place. In case we didn’t pick up on it in the Torah itself, the midrash highlights this moment for us:

Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said: he turned his face and looked, as it says, “the Lord saw that he had turned to look.” And when God saw that Moses looked at Him, He said, “This is the one who is fit to lead Israel.” (Exodus Rabbah 2:6)

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ אָמַר הָפַךְ פָּנָיו וְהִבִּיט, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיַּרְא הכִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִבִּיט בּוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אָמַר נָאֶה זֶה לִרְעוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.

That was the qualifying attribute: the fact that Moses turned and searched for something that was at first only vaguely there. So Moses’ destiny wasn’t a sure thing – it was waiting in potential. Before God would seek out Moses, Moses had to seek out God.

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There is, however, a second interpretation in that same midrash that bears mentioning. It follows the first, as if in disagreement:

Rabbi Yitzchak said: What does it mean that he ‘turned to look’? God saw that he turned and was outraged when he saw the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. Therefore he was fit to be their leader. And that is when God called to him from the bush.

אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק, מַהוּ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא סָר וְזָעֵף הוּא זֶה לִרְאוֹת בְּצַעֲרָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְפִיכָךְ רָאוּי הוּא לִהְיוֹת רוֹעֶה עֲלֵיהֶן, מִיָּד וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹקים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה.

Again this reading sees the key to Moses’ distinction in the words, “he turned to look” – but Rabbi Yitzchak reads these words metaphorically. Moses “turned” from his own life to look back at the place he came from. He remembered the pain of his brethren, and could not bear it. And this was the quality that made Moses into a leader: his empathy. Certainly Moses had the talent and the training to do the job – but what tipped the scale was that he had the heart.

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In either of these rabbinic interpretations, the critical thing is that Moses turned. Without that turn, there would be no Moses as we know him. Without that first little movement on his part, there could have been no redemption.

As fragile as this answer is, there is something reassuring in it. Because it means that we can all be Moses. We do not have to be born under a good sign. We do not have to be raised in a palace.

We only have to seek out God. And though our revelation may be obscured, we must continue to search. Out in the wilderness, somewhere among the bushes and shrubs, the One we seek is waiting to be found.

We only have to open ourselves to human suffering – to feel outraged by injustice, agonized by the pain of our people, and called to action – and we will be shown the way forward.

We only have to turn and look, and our redemption is at hand.

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