When God first called to Moses from within the Burning Bush, Moses answers, “Hineni” (“Here I am!”), as if to say, “I am present and available to You.” But upon hearing the mission: to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt, Moses is hesitant; he answers, “Mi anochi” (“Who am I?”). Why did Moses have such an abrupt change of heart?
Nachmanides suggests that he was both exceedingly humble and afraid for his life. Rashi also cites his humility, as well as the Israelites’ lack of merit to have a miracle performed for them. Other sages, such as Malbim, thought that Moses wanted God to do this task, or if not God then angels, as Rabbi Hiya suggests in the Midrash, referring to when God rescued Lot from Sodom and brought back Hagar to Sarah [Exodus Rabba].
Perhaps Moses had another reason to refuse the task. Moses had received the best education of his time. He was educated with the other princes of Egypt to prepare him for a brilliant career in administration, public works, and governance. He had learned to be the manager of human and natural resources, to oversee projects and solve problems. When he killed the Egyptian taskmaster and had to flee to Midian, he left it all behind. He gave up the grand life to follow sheep for the next 30 years.
Although he knew he was an Egyptian failure, after all the years in Midian he had come to terms with being who he was: a simple shepherd performing unskilled labor, not using any of his extraordinary education or skills. However, just as God gave Joseph a unique “Business School” education, working as a slave for Potifar and the prison warden, God put Moses in the wilderness herding sheep to develop the compassion and patience he would later need to be the leader and advocate of the nation. As the Zohar comments, “so must Israel’s shepherd be compassionate and not cruel.”
The Midrash Rabba says that prior to the Burning Bush, God urged Moses to rescue the Israelites for seven whole days but Moses refused. At the Burning Bush, Moses tries five more times to refuse God’s mission. And yet, even as he asks God to find another, his mind is working on the problem, foreseeing all the potential difficulties and obstacles he might encounter should he accept. He is resistant, yet also intrigued by the challenge.
In his first (“Who am I?”) response to God, we see that Moses, trying to hide from himself, doesn’t really know who he is. Moses, whose name Rashi translates as “Removal,” is removed from the water, and is asked to become the leader who removes others. Moses seems to want to say, “I know that I have not fulfilled my early promise and have wasted all my advantages, but I’ve made peace with my life. Please don’t ask me to go back to Egypt.” Moses sees what is; God sees what will be, the radiance of the person Moses will become.
So it is with us. We may have had wonderful plans and visions for ourselves. We may be in situations that feel like slavery, or situations in which we are not using all of our talents. And yet, we have accepted who we have become and who we are. God put us in “Compassion School,” so that we develop the attributes of chesed (grace, compassion), and the qualities of netzach (endurance) and hod (humility), three attributes of the Divine Essence in the Sephirot, the “Tree of Life” mapped onto human form.
We see what is and only intuit what might be. We shy away from the promise of the unknown. God sees not only who we are but also who we could become: the magnificence and the possibilities just beyond the horizon of our vision. As the Sfat Emet wrote, “exile is only a hiding. If you can manage to remove the hiding from yourself by making your heart pure and clear” you will then be able to experience the joy that awaits you.
By embracing the marvelous opportunities for growth that we are sent, we can perform God’s work in the world and come to know ourselves as much more than we now are, much more marvelous than we can imagine.
Rabbi Jill Hausman is the spiritual leader and cantor of The Actors Temple on West 47th Street in Manhattan.
Shabbat Candles: 4:17 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 1:1-6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13;
29:22-23 (Ashkenaz); Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:18 p.m.