Thursday, 04 Jan 2018

Written by Roberta Harris-Eckstein

Parasha Shemot
6th January 2018

Have you ever thought how odd the beginning of Moses’ career was? He was our most important teacher and prophet, highly respected, even revered, not just by us, but by Christians and Moslems as well. But his adult life begins with a murder – and murder is murder, no matter who it is that dies.

And his second notable act, after becoming Jethro’s shepherd (just as he was the shepherd-to-be of his people), was to try to get out of becoming that shepherd, leader, teacher and prophet. Even standing before the burning bush on Mt Horeb he says – in answer to God’s direct command – ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharoah and bring Israel out of Egypt?’ And when God patiently describes the whole scenario, Moses continues to say how unfit he is, even after he is told that he will perform miracles with which he will demonstrate to the Egyptians that he is, indeed, God’s chosen representative. It was only after he was promised that Aaron would go with him and be his official spokesperson, that Moses plucked up his courage, took his leave of Jethro, his father-in-law, and returned to Egypt, meeting up with Aaron on the way.

For a man as humble and timorous as Moses was in his own esteem, surely it is rather surprising that he was able to argue with God? He must have been a lot stronger than he knew. That applies to many of us, of course. How, often, when faced with a new challenge, a new venture, do we instinctively say, ‘I can’t do that in a million years!’ We don’t usually say it out loud, and we do usually knuckle down and get on with it, and are then surprised at how well we actually managed it. It takes a lot of experience of life, of living our lives, to realise that challenges can be met and even relished and that we can accomplish things we had no idea we could even attempt.

It is possible that Moses’ real problem was that, during his pampered childhood in the palace, there was no run-up to this ultimate of all tests – to act on behalf of the Almighty and pit himself against one of the greatest rulers of the ancient biblical world. If, as is often said, this was Ramesses II, Ramesses the Great, for whom the store cities of the land of Goshen were built, then it really was an immense demand that was made of Moses.

Perhaps, then, Moses should have been given the opportunity to build up his confidence before he was required to stand up to Pharoah. To start with some small responsibility as a young lad, and then to work up to bigger things. That’s by far the preferable way – as we ourselves know, if we are lucky. Begin as the class monitor and work up to being a school prefect: or start as an office junior and work up to being the head of human resources; be a young mum and work up to being the dowager of the family. We – I should say ‘my husband and I’ – have been watching ‘The Crown’ over the holiday season and have been impressed with how much the character of the young queen, unexpectedly ascending the throne so young, gained in stature and confidence as the years went on.

That, in some measure, is surely the story of all our lives. We begin young and inexperienced with little, if any, belief in ourselves, and as time passes we live through all the things that life throws at us and learn on the way to trust ourselves and our judgement more and more, actually enjoying, even perhaps welcoming the challenges and difficulties as a way of showing our mettle. But, nevertheless, most of us always begin a new project with a whisper of self-doubt in our hearts. And some of us may even decry ourselves by saying that this is a difficult task, and we doubt that we can do it – just as Moses did. And then, just like Moses, find that we can do it, and not just do it, but do it well.

Moses grew to be a man with the self-confidence to ask to see God. And he was allowed to – albeit only the back of God; a way of saying that we usually understand the role God plays in what we do after the event. Sometimes, by keeping that whisper of self-doubt in mind, we realise in time that we are following the wrong path, the path of over-confidence, of arrogance and pride. So, while we should always stand ready to say as Moses did before the Burning Bush ‘Hineni’ – ‘Here I am, ready to serve’ – we must regularly check ourselves to be sure that our self-confidence has not turned into something else, a something that may lead to catastrophe. If we go down that path we may, like Moses, hit the rock, instead of asking it to give up its water and then – lehavdil – we may reap the whirlwind as Moses did. He never reached the Land of Promise, but was only able to look at it from afar. And we, too, if we overstep the mark, may face disaster. So we should always build our confidence with the utmost care and undertake a task with that question permanently in our hearts, checking ourselves and our motives constantly. Maybe we won’t commit a murder as Moses did, but there are a myriad ways in which we can betray ourselves and our better instincts. We should always hold ourselves ready to undertake a new task, a new project, but we need to be careful as we do so to ensure we are working with our good instincts and not our bad ones. Then, when we are done and can see the back of God, we are able to approve ourselves and not to feel that we have failed.

Roberta Harris-Eckstein
LBC Rabbinic Student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.